Stop blaming the media, fake news, and click bait.

Statement: The purpose of media is no longer to inform but rather to entertain for as long as possible.

You find yourself at a confusing moment in history — with frightening events unfolding. Lots of bad information, lots of bad people, and lots of choices being made at the highest levels of government, corporations, and media that seem to exacerbate the overall confusion. You just want answers. No fake news! Fix the algorithms! Stop the liberal media!

But like an addict we tune out the real issue because it’s just too difficult to admit. We make a lot of claims about what that problem could be — yet ignore that it lies in us: media has always been our entertainment.

Working in the online space, I am surprised at the unclear relationship many — even mature — colleagues have with their media. No one likes to think of themselves as wasting time or indulging in wasteful excess. We always have a good excuse!

Ask anyone you know why they spend so much time wading into arguments on Twitter or watching cable news all day in the office. I bet I know the answer you won’t get: “because it’s fun! and I had some down time.” Never. There’s always a very serious reason given for feed addiction, often defended as “learning,” “informing,” or “standing up for something.”

We talk a lot about cognitive bias when discussing fake news — yet, we don’t go a step further and evaluate our own structural biases when it comes to how we understand what knowledge is. In Amusing Ourselves to DeathNeil Postman describes television as the “command center of the new epistemology,” the lens through which we now understand everything else. For Postman in 1984, television was what online media is to us today.

Three decades later, television and online media have now come to shape the very way we interpret and understand information. Pew Research shows that 26% of American adults haven’t read a book in the past year — 40% of non-college graduates.

I fear, by ignoring how embedded it is in our lives and culture, we may not notice its snare. Postman’s litany describes us well: “There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most important of all, there is no subject of public interest — politics, news, education, religion, science, sports — that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.

Is it for work? Is it for fun? Am I learning something? Why the hell am I watching this? These are all questions that should float through your mind as you reach the end of an hour-long Twitter battle over the color of a dress.

But we’ve been conditioned this way by the medium, to take in information and interpret it though the television lens. All that is needed is to look at Fox and Friends or Morning Joe to recognize our addiction to Hollywood — to see how little we actually gain from media.

Postman knew this 33 years ago:

“That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? … We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this — the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials — all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.” — Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

To understand the problem that caused the populist movement this year, we need to understand a fundamental problem in our media that does not have a liberal or conservative bent.

The problem is the constant illusion that our participation is media isalways informative and educational — that, by constantly consuming information and reacting to it, we are providing a net good to society.

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.”  — Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Sound familiar? Postman’s prescience is remarkable. To defend his claim that television (and media) only entertains, he attacks the pedagogical value of education’s media poster child, Sesame Street. What could possibly be wrong with Sesame Street?

“We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.

— Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve.
— Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen.
— Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images.
— Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice.
— Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen.
— Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum.
— Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Many may disagree with his take on Sesame Street, but his point has been echoed by education studies ad nauseum over the past 10 years.

There are no all-encompassing, broad-stroke solutions here. Every interaction with media is a personal choice. But I think by illustrating some of media’s shortcomings, we might be able to reign a few smart people in.

Frankly, I don’t mind if you waste your time. Just don’t tell me that what you did was for any other reason other than pure amusement or pleasure. I’ll leave you with Postman’s optimism:

“For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are…Through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

Here’s a bonus. Neil Postman on computers (in 1984): 

“Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology — that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data — will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

(This was originally published on Medium: https://the-politic.com/youre-not-distracted-you-re-entertained-193cb1b6e33b)

Next Article
Michael is the CEO of Magnitude Consulting and writes on the intersection of technology and ethics.