The dependence we have on devices is one we often care about, one we scarcely analyze and one we almost never make a wholehearted effort to change. The nature of this dependence is both compelling and terrifying; we should work to understand it, find the faults and make a concerted effort to change it.
To do this, a seemingly outdated book can help inform the nature of the issue. In 1985, Neil Postman published a book titled, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” The book is a commentary on the ways in which dystopian literary fiction, such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” predicted the world of tomorrow to be. His evaluation paints a grim picture for the very American dependence on digital technological media — a dependence that I posit has exploded in time with digital technology.
What he found was a startling cultural shift in favor of entertainment, by way of the television. The means by which we transmit information has a profound impact on us as well as the nature of the “information” itself. Before anyone wrote anything down, we lived in a world where information was purely nonphysical; we told stories and passed on our knowledge only orally. Jotting things down had massive implications. In the words of Postman, “Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian and the scientist.”
This is to say that through the power of writing, we revolutionized not only our engagement with the world, but our engagement with the very knowledge we develop as well. Postman goes on to analyze the implications of the later media shift towards the digital. What he finds is grim.
Soon after the television found its way into American living rooms, Ronald Reagan, a former T.V. star, found his way into the oval office. John Kennedy won the hearts of Americans by fixing his hair often on the debate stage. Ideas and resumes once gave a president ethos; now something more superficial has been added to the mix. In this aspect, it seems the pattern holds by way of our current commander in chief.
We should be alarmed. A change in the style of media allows irrelevant attributes of a candidate to become crucial to the choosing of a president. More broadly, the television led to changes, like a decrease in our attention spans, as a result of becoming accustomed to continuously high levels of stimulation.
We became unaccustomed to active listening and reading, and looked to the television to do all the mental work that we personally would be doing otherwise. It is easy to see that the television numbed our intellect by way of the very human pleasure that is entertainment.
What, then, would Postman say about smartphones? We now have something of an infinite-channeled television constantly at our fingertips, and in our direct control. The constant attention drain that is an iPhone, we should acknowledge, is potentially not a tool but an obstacle to us living our lives in an optimally aware and informed way. Sources of media have the power to take away the very part of our mind that asks the question: “Is this what I want to be doing?” We find ourselves, as Postman states, in a situation not unlike Huxley’s “Brave New World”; we are actively drawn towards the very agent taking from us our personal freedom as autonomous beings.