The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How The Television and Internet Helped Make Americans Dumb

The final draft, for your viewing (oops, I mean, reading) pleasure.

Reformation Bible College

The Image Driven Culture and Its Ramifications

Theological Prolegomena


Thomas Booher

Sanford, Florida
December, 2011

Americans have an insatiable appetite to be entertained. Even news programs have satire counterparts, or quasi-news, quasi-entertainment programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Recently, a television genre called “reality” emerged, imitating real life. Yet one will soon discover that “entertainment steroids” were injected into the shows to draw in audiences. The television show Survivor can hardly be said to depict a relatable life experience to any of its targeted demographic. Men and women are taken to an island where they are forced to live off the land and compete against one another in various tasks; one by one they are voted off until a single survivor remains, thus winning the game and the large cash prize. This begs the question- how did America get the idea that they could consider such a television show, and countless others like it, reality? The “real” reality is media and technology have created a culture that gathers its epistemology from pictures, images, and the feelings they evoke as opposed to written words, verbal argumentation, and the rational thought they induce.
     Television and the internet emerged when Americans had much free time due to technological advances. Americans spent much of their spare time watching television broadcasts and internet downloads. The novelty of the television, of being able to see someone speaking through a box, drew many to it. Likewise, the internet enabled man to select what he wanted to watch, as well as provide his own feedback. Free time became a time for “eye candy,” of seeing things that looked impressive, but did not actually communicate anything important. Less time was spent reading books or listening to the radio. As Kenneth Myers put it, “If you and everyone in your family had to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, you would not have to ask whether or not you should plan your life around when ‘Entertainment Tonight’ is scheduled. But most of us enjoy a level of leisure that leaves plenty of room for entertainment every night.”[1]
The implications are substantial. Books and the radio communicate through words, but television and the internet communicate largely through imagery. Neil Postman offers some valuable insight, saying “…How we are obliged to conduct such [human] conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.”[2] Postman further argues that the television medium cannot ably communicate what a book or oral speech can:
For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content….it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.[3]
In other words, television and the internet have by necessity dumbed down what is most easily communicable in our culture, creating a culture whose epistemology is largely gleaned from visual stimuli rather than logical, coherent rhetoric. Even what is spoken on television must often be reduced to a sound byte or brief segment (such as the televised presidential debates), sifting out long, thoughtful arguments that may not sound good or make for good air time but can actually communicate profound truth. The problem is exacerbated over time, since the more a culture becomes accustomed to visual stimuli and unfamiliar with logical argumentation and reasoning, the greater degree of mental atrophy occurs in the society to think critically, particularly through the medium of the written word! This results in a cultural preference for things like Survivor rather than a discourse on the necessity of an eternal, self-existent being, something Ken Myers calls “a culture of diversion.”[4] Further, many may come to look down upon logic and rational argumentation itself, since few in a visually driven culture can understand or grasp its contents, and even fewer care to try.
But what laid the groundwork for such a shift away from the written word to the visually driven culture that the television ushered in? Postman argues that the telegraph and the photograph are to blame:
The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines- sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each “headline” stood alone as its own context….The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood…to the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.[5]
The telegraph allowed access to completely irrelevant information nationwide, creating information glut. Photography further enhanced sensationalism, showing the ravages of a tornado on the other side of the world, or the images of a great battle of war. Of course, this further degenerated into getting the next glimpse at what Lady Gaga would wear to the MTV awards show, or what antics Chad Ochocinco would perform for his endzone celebration. Thus the telegraph and photograph inaugurated the slippery slope towards entertaining ourselves to death.
The problem with a photograph and a still image is that it cannot communicate truth in and of itself. It can show us a building, or a bird, or a basketball, but unless we have a prior understanding of what these images are, they will be meaningless to us. Take for instance a cross. For Christians, this brings to mind Jesus Christ dying to save them from their sins. Yet without the spoken word of the gospel being proclaimed orally or written down and distributed, no one would think twice about the image of a cross. Yet with the preunderstanding of all that the cross entails, the sight of one can produce tears for Christians as they remember their suffering Savior. While words and oral communication pertain to ideas and aim at truth, encouraging reflection, images by themselves pertain to emotions and aim at evoking feelings, encouraging response. The telegraph and photograph enabled man to gasp when he heard of and later saw the World Trade Center buildings crashing down, but it retarded his ability to comprehend why it even mattered, why it was so shocking, why something inside him told him this was wrong. Response replaced reflection.
All of which leads to the real question- why does man seek the cheap thrills of entertainment television, of a “fantasy reality” like that of Survivor or American Idol  or the extravagant lifestyles of those in Hollywood, rather than contemplating the most basic, most elementary questions of life, such as its purpose and meaning? In short, why is man content  entertaining himself to death with utter nonsense and trivial pursuits until something like terrorists blowing up the World Trade Center or a natural disaster shocks him back to life, to the “real” real world? Why is man restless to seek glitz and glamour over the contentment the “simple” and “ordinary” things of life bring?
The answer is partly in the question. Americans don’t know any better, because they have been weaned on television, video games, movies, and the internet, nearly since the day they were born. They have been told that a Hollywood lifestyle is what is desirable. They have been bombarded with extravagance and been told it is the desired norm, that indeed it is abnormal not to be extravagant or outlandish. Nonconformity, expressed through dress, music, language, is the new telos of man. This is the result of epistemology emerging from a visually driven culture rather than a written word- based culture.
When the desire to ascertain truth, significance, and meaning is lost, the natural result is for madness to reign. Sexual promiscuity has risen since the advent of the television, even further with pornography filtering in to many homes via the internet. Women wear less and less clothing because the media portrays women wearing less. Men who have grown up in this visual driven culture have been warped, now only responding to visual stimuli, encouraging women to dress all the more skimpily.  Modesty is a foreign concept due in large part to the cultural over-emphasis on visual/physical appearance. The result, as the Bible says, is Americans have forgotten how to blush, because they don’t know why they should be blushing (Jer. 6:15).
If truth aligned man’s feelings, perhaps a visually driven culture wouldn’t be such a bad thing. After all, if every time we reacted to what we saw rightly, then whatever we saw and however we reacted to it would be the proper response. In that case, reason, learning, and understanding would not be necessary, because we would already have complete understanding. The problem is that humans do not understanding everything, and they often understand things wrongly yet think they grasp it correctly. Hitler strongly felt he was doing the will of God when he slaughtered millions of Jews. We look back on those images with horror and dread, and rightly so. Yet we have lost so much understanding that today it is quite possible that the sight of a Hitler being executed would evoke the cries and protests of many to let him live and let those who wish to give him justice be executed in his stead (these would probably be the same ones that deny the holocaust’s existence)!  
Scripture reminds us that the problem is ultimately the heart of man- “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9, NKJV). Our sinful hearts lead us to desire amusement over truth, feeling good over thinking rightly. Only the gospel coming in the power of the Spirit can reverse this.


[1]Kenneth A. Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), 53
[2]Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th anniversary ed. (New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2006), 6
[3]Ibid. 7,9
[4] Kenneth A. Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), 56
[5]Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 20th anniversary ed. (New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2006), 70

No comments:

Post a Comment