Sunday, October 09, 2005

Television and the Internet - Technological Salvation or Snake Oil?

John 1:1-5 (New Living Translation)
“1In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn't make. 4Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. 5The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

Yesterday I read the transcript of Al Gore’s comments made at a recent media conference. His remarks started with great promise:

“I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions.”

“Not bad,” I thought. I read on and came to this place in the transcript:

“In fact there was a time when America's public discourse was consistently much more vivid, focused and clear. Our Founders, probably the most literate generation in all of history, used words with astonishing precision and believed in the Rule of Reason.”

“Their faith in the viability of Representative Democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry. But they placed particular emphasis on insuring that the public could be well- informed. And they took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas in order to ensure the free-flow of knowledge.”

“The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg's disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the “Rule of Reason.”

“Still not bad,” I mused. I continued, sorting through the maze of ideas, and eventually found that Citizen Gore was lamenting the loss of civil discourse in America. The lament was rooted in what he saw as the increasingly limited role the consumers of information (you and I) have with those who gather and disseminate it:

“Clearly, the purpose of television news is no longer to inform the American people or serve the public interest. It is to “glue eyeballs to the screen” in order to build ratings and sell advertising. If you have any doubt, just look at what's on: The Robert Blake trial. The Laci Peterson tragedy. The Michael Jackson trial. The Runaway Bride. The search in Aruba. The latest twist in various celebrity couplings, and on and on and on.”

“And it really matters because the subjugation of news by entertainment seriously harms our democracy: it leads to dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people. And when the people are not informed, they cannot hold government accountable when it is incompetent, corrupt, or both.”

“One of the only avenues left for the expression of public or political ideas on television is through the purchase of advertising, usually in 30-second chunks. These short commercials are now the principal form of communication between candidates and voters. As a result, our elected officials now spend all of their time raising money to purchase these ads.”

After all the gloom and doom the former presidential candidate offered a solution. It was the internet:

“The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.”

Putting his money where his mouth was, Gore, along with his partner, Joel Hyatt, purchased a cable news channel, NewsWorld International, from Vivendi Corporation. The purpose of the joint venture is a mix of jaded altruism and opportunism, an idea that only someone like Al Gore and an ambulance chaser, who parlayed his wealth into a Stanford professorship and Democratic Party power, could hatch:

“This will not be a political network,” the former U.S. vice president said in a statement. But NWI will be developed into a network offering programming for a target audience of 18-34 year-olds, said the company.”

Well, I read the words over and over again to see if I could get them to add up. But, like most things Al Gore has dreamed up over the years, this one fell apart where it mattered most. Professing a desire to make Americans once again a full partners in a literate, interactive culture, he has offered a solution that defies good sense. To solve what he perceives as the problems of access and literary he has gone out and bought a television network.

Forgive me if I don’t jump on the bandwagon, but Citizen Gore’s idea, while promoted with rousing one-liners, is a non starter. To say that television is the cure for an incessantly visual culture is akin to buying Sneaky Pete or Thunderbird in truckloads to cure winos.

I want to give Mr. Gore credit, though. He’s actually seen that television is a big contributor to the literacy problem in America. That much he got right. But how he could make a leap from that to positing that television itself is the solution to the problem it created is beyond me.

I’ve read about one third of the way through Arthur Hunt’s “
The Vanishing Word – The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World.” This is one of the things the author had to say early on in his work:

“There is a big difference between processing information on a printed page compared with processing data conveyed through a series of moving pictures. Images have a way of evoking an emotional response. Pictures have a way of pushing rational discourse – linear logic – into the background. The chief aim of television is to sell products and entertain audiences. Television seeks emotional gratification. As a visual medium, television programming is designed to be amusing. Substance gives way to sounds and sights. Hard facts are undermined by stirring feelings. Important issues are drowned out by dramatic images. Reason is replaced by emotion.”

It’s frightening. The very medium Al Gore is buying in to is the one that is, in large part, responsible for the destruction of reflection, discourse, and literacy in America. And, it’s even more frightening to consider the power that television has had on other media, especially those intended to be read:

“In this age, we find that Americans have been seduced by breadth rather than depth, by quantity rather than quality, by style rather than substance. It is the rare person who reads publications that require reflection; instead the likes of “People,” “Sports illustrated,” and “TV Guide” dominate the newsstands. Harlequin novels and pop psychology reign at the bookstore. Conversations about the weather and the Super Bowl are more common and more intense than those about values and the meaning of life.”

There’s a part of me that would like to believe that the internet, and blogging, hold some promise to turn America from its hell-bent pursuit of the visual toward reason and reflection, and the written word. I see glimmers of hope. But, more than anything, I see a youth dominated medium that is more preoccupied with visual effect than it is with serious discourse.

I’m sure there are some who would say that television and the internet are distinct media. I think they’d also try to argue that television is an empty medium while the internet is a medium of ideas and content. I contend that the two are related. Television has helped shape America’s new millennium young into a visual, shallow, vapid generation. And the internet, which is really not much more than a hybrid of television, a way for one medium to morph into another, has just given them the opportunity to sharpen the skills they learned while their eyes and souls were glued to the glass tit of their childhood. Television, which America’s mothers and fathers used as a baby sitter, has, by re-inventing itself and attaching a keyboard to a monitor, become the taskmaster rather than the servant. The tragic by-product of it all is that it has helped produce a generation almost incapable of thought or reflection.

Do I have a solution? Yes! Turn the television off, sit down, read a book, then sit alone and reflect on what you’ve read. Think about it. Think about it some more. Once that’s done, repeat the process over and over until the human mind, soul, and spirit take over and begin to reclaim the life lost to these “technological wonders.”

Some might say it’s a simplistic solution. “Just pick up a book, read it, and everything will be alright.” Again, I say yes.
I believe in the power of the written word to truly transform:

“The power of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it?”

It’s in that one idea that I clearly see the damage television and the internet, with all their visual wizardry, have done. The written word can transform; it can elevate. The visual media have done little but debase its viewers.

In the end I’m sure I’ll be written off by many as an alarmist, someone who refuses to see the possibilities, a man out of step with his time. I contend that I may be more of a visionary than those caught in the vice grip of this technological sleight-of-hand could ever imagine. I suspect that in the end my view, as antiquated as some might think it to be, will be vindicated.


Jay said...

It's an old story...blaming technology for the ills of mankind. Perhaps instead of looking to fix the tools we devise, we could look at using the tools to fix ourselves. The internet, like television before and radio before that and moveable type before that, offer us greatness or crassness....the choice has always been ours.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

Man-made systems, be they technical or philosophical, are by their initiative nature, circular. On a man-made value-scale they have 'nowhere to go' and are repetitive and actually reinforce and enlarge human problems as much as they solve ongoing difficulties and shortcomings.

The failure is not in the creative endeavour but in the creature and his innate egoistic physical appetites ruling whatever mental and spiritual potential he may possess.

Man-made literature is valuable - to a point - in growth. The Gore-like circularity of humanistic productivity is self-defeating unless growth through and beyond the worldly and the human is experienced and lived.

The only non-manmade literature available to the mind and spirit of man is The Bible. It is self-verifiable as God-made in its manifestation of Transcendent Criteria and Fulfilled Prophetic Validation. There is no alternative.

Lacking individual revival, 'books' will be meaningless. The Choice will be ours as long as we are here. selah

"Got Criteria?" See Psalm 119:1-176
semper fidelis

Tish G. said...

Hi Phil...

Good comments on Al Gore's speech (I was there, actually)

You are right about televison (and the internet) contributing to illiteracy among Americans--but I would take it one step further in that it has fostered an inability to reason. As you comment, we need time for reflection. Reflection helps cultivate and the ability to apply reason. We are lacking reason nowadays--among the 18-34's most graphically, but also in the 35-59's who can also be pulled along by kneejerk emotionalism.

There is a need to acquire information. If we don't constantly acquire, we are left out of the loop or are uncool. Be don't process anything. We don't reason. Therefore there is no "marketplace of ideas" and no "rule of reason" is applied.

you can read my report on We Media here:

Tish G.

Broken Messenger said...


This is a very insightful and thoughtful post, thank you.

There’s a part of me that would like to believe that the internet, and blogging, hold some promise to turn America from its hell-bent pursuit of the visual toward reason and reflection, and the written word. I see glimmers of hope. But, more than anything, I see a youth dominated medium that is more preoccupied with visual effect than it is with serious discourse.

True. And it is forcing bloggers to post in such a way that caters to an age that is dominated by a "fast-food" media culture.


Gone Away said...

Great article again, Phil. I have posted before on matters closely related but you have stated the problem very clearly and with considerable insight. What concerns me particularly is this matter of the internet - I'm not sure that it is just a child of television. It seems to me that it contains some hope for the future, although much depends on who uses it and how they do so. If nothing else, it does present us with a chance to have our say...

Marti said...

I dislike any "throw the baby out with the bathwater" type approach, and I sure you are a reasoned man, who is not suggesting a blanket approach, declaring all “new” media as bad. I would hope that any "new" technology that comes along (television...the internet...who knows what next?) will adapt and evolve, and that there will always be room for intelligent discussion of ideas. If not for the internet, those who have commented here would be unlikely to have been able to share in this very discussion!