Monday, October 11, 2010

is the internet amusing us to death?

In his 1985 book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death', Neil Postman wrote of the danger not of an Orwellian 1984 totalitarian world but of a dystopia envisaged by Aldous Huxley characterised by infinite distraction, one where books would not be available - not because they were not banned but because noone wanted to read them. Postman singled out a culture of entertainment with television as its leading media for particular analysis:
"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when a cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a possibility". (Postman 1985: preface)

Although it began as an educational medium with hopes for educational advancement, television became instead pure entertainment on tap. Postman argued that 'television's principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable' (p150) and that its overall effect was the trivialisation of culture. 25 years later we have a culture that is celebrity-obsessed to the nth degree.

The internet can be lauded similarly as a medium with transformational educational potential. What is the reality? Is the internet just changing things to provide play-on-demand services with an almost infinite variety of choice? Triviality has been trademarked on You Tube and in more sinister entertainment allows happy slapping to be viewed or street fights. Social networking' websites where ego-centrism reigns such as Bebo,
MySpace and FaceBook create a virtual reality where public and private never seem separate and which provides an equally unattractive mirror of the standards of conversation, thinking, spelling besides morality  that obtain in society. Entertainment mimics itself with Facebook now becoming a Holywood movie. Always more than one step ahead of their parents, children are now constant consumers of the internet and have their minds well conformed to this world before they even try to think for themselves.

Part of the problem of the internet is the illusion of aggregation that somehow because enough people hit the "like" button, the preference becomes invested with far more value than it is worth. A cursory review of the trends of searching on Google or Yahoo shows the purpose for which people use the internet as well as the fallacy of building a ranking system for your search engine around these bulk requests. What is the purpose of the internet for many? What Postman describes as "escaping reality and living hollow lives".

The internet is governed by the cult of the instant. The internet makes entertainment instant, information instant - everything instant. This doesn't do much for the virtue of patience; people wait less than 4 seconds for a page to load. No one really reads on the Internet, they skim over words for sound bytes. If you've got beyond the first two paragraphs to this point, you are not in the internet majority. If there are any profound thoughts shared on Twitter, its certain that they cannot be elaborated adequately.

The instant is addictive, if you know that anything is a click away, you keep going and going following an endless trail of information that you cannot absorb but intoxicated by the power of your fingertips. Meanwhile, there's no time for the things that really matter. How much time is redeemed on the internet and how much time is wasted? Our whole view of the world is shaped by this and our lives are changed without us noticing. We focus on what the internet has given us but rarely on what it has taken away. What Postman called the "anxious age of agitated amnesiacs" has become a lot more agitated with the speed of the internet.