Home > Critical Thinking, Culture & Media, History > Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 7: The Brief Attention Span

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 7: The Brief Attention Span

For those just joining this series, I would suggest starting at part one here. We are going through this exercise because I firmly believe this book by Neil Postman is a watershed work in understanding from where originates the lack of thought that seems to characterize our culture today. For those wondering, Mr. Postman’s work consists of eleven chapters, and we are going at approximately one chapter per post, so we are a little over half way through. The series also includes two posts so far that do not have the above title format, and are not included in the part count, having originated in excellent comments left on previous installments that I deemed worthy of a more extended response than that usually relegated to a comments section. Enjoy!

Chapter Seven is entitled “Now…This” and it is here that the author turns to the impact of the transition from a word oriented culture to a visually oriented culture upon the news media (aka, the MSM, or mainstream media) and its product. This chapter is an indictment against the thought process, or lack thereof, created by television.

‘Now…this’ is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly – for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening – that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now…this.’ The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial. (page 99-100 [emphasis added)

With so many kids being raised by the television, is it any wonder we have such a rise in alleged “attention deficient disorders” in this country? And then we have an explanation for why so many politicians don’t make any sense to those who actually try to figure out what they are saying:

If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. (page 102 [emphasis added])

…whereas we expect books and even other media (such as film) to maintain a consistency of tone and a continuity of content, we have not such expectation of television, and especially television news. We have become so accustomed to its discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King; who says, in other words, ‘Now…this.’ One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place. (page 104-105)

Another telling observation of our culture:

The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least wellinformed people in the Western world. I say this is the face of the popular conceit that television, as a window to the world, has made Americans exceedingly well informed. (page 106 [emphasis added])

Note Postman’s piercing question at the end of this excerpt:

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly by called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? (page 107-108 [emphasis added])

Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions. (page 111 [emphasis added])

Ouch! If ever a culture was insensible to contradiction (liberal rationalizations abound in the MSM) and enamored with our electronic play toys (how long did you wait in line for the latest, what is it? Xbox, or whatever the newest video game console is?), it is ours.

I do not mean that the trivialization of public information is all accomplished on television. I mean that television is the paradigm for our conception of public information. As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror television. (page 111)

Thus it is deems newsworthy that such-and-such movie star did this or that trivial something or other, while the world rushes headlong towards one true disaster after another.

And so, we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit. As the game of that name uses facts as a source of amusement, so do our sources of news. It has been demonstrated many times that a culture can survive misinformation and false opinion. It has not yet been demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the measure of the world in twenty-two minutes. Or if the value of its news is determined by the number of laughs it provides. (page 113 [emphasis added])

In other words, this has ramifications for our very survival as a culture.

To be continued….

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