Reading Time: 6 minutes
Twenty-five years ago, Neil Postman argued that with TV we are "amusing ourselves to death." More recently, in an Internet-age response to Postman, Steven Johnson argues that "everything bad is good for you," including video games, television, Internet, and film.
Neil Postman builds his argument by breaking down television into its component parts: photographs and the telegraph. He argues that both of these media inherently decontextualize their content.
Photographs are inherently out of context. They can be nothing else. The content is photographed so that it can be viewed in a different context at a later time. Far from picturing a figure and its background, the photo combines both into one object. The context becomes content. Instead, words provide meaningful context to explain the pictures. This is why newspaper photographs have captions.
The telegraph, TV's other component, dislocates events from geography. It takes information from a context where it is pertinent, meaningful, and relevant and removes it to a location where it has little or no import. Only rarely will this information affect the daily life of the far-off reader. Thus, primarily it is simply interesting, but it is not relevant. It's entertainment with an alias: News.
By combining these irrelevant events with those contextless images, the television is inherently a decontextualizing agent itself. Try watching the television news without sound and imagine watching it without captions. You will see how meaningless the images are by themselves. Words—spoken and written—provide the context.
Neil Postman further argues that without language, there is no logical relationship between context and content—no propositional move to help viewers make sense of the content. Thus, for Postman, the TV as a medium makes mincemeat out of sequence and logic, which rely on propositions. The television trains viewers to ignore context. In the end they are less able to connect context with content at all.
That is one side of the argument.
On the other side is Steven Johnson arguing that “everything bad is good for you.” He builds his argument by looking at video games, TV, the Internet, and film. But his argument deals almost entirely with the contents, and not the medium at all. As a result he and Postman a past each other.
Nonetheless, Johnson's book is worthwhile for at least two reasons. First, he offers some legitimate arguments about how these cultural products could be making us smarter. Secondly, his arguments work to actually support Postman’s observations more than undermine them, even though Johnson juxtaposes himself with Postman.
Johnson's primary argument rests on the increasing complexity of video games, TV, movies, and the Internet. They require more deft thinking by players, viewers, and users, he argues. And I think he's right as far as it goes. But our increasing intelligence, I believe, says less about media complexity and more about our drive to make meaning out of chaos. I'll say more about this a bit later. First let me outline some of Johnson's points.
First, Johnson analyzes the complexification (his word) of plots for various shows over the last 50 years (70). He traces plot complexity as it develops from Dragnet, through Starsky and Hutch, to Hill Street Blues, and onto The Sopranos. Basically TV shows once had a single storyline (like Dragnet) but now they have multiple plots that alternate and intertwine (like The Sopranos). This complexification, for Johnson, culminates with a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called "The Betrayal." The scenes are shown in reverse chronology (88) and are virtually incoherent without repeated viewing (repetition being a necessity for successful syndication).
Later, he discusses this complexity trend in the film industry as well. He points to movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He quotes from a interview with the screenwriter for Eternal Sunshine. The writer explains how he uses non-linear storytelling to engage the viewer in a conversation (164). In this Johnson is right: Participation happens when the audience is required to "fill in" information to make the plot coherent. They are constantly connecting the dots to create closure and complete the picture. (Humor requires much the same thing.)
Let me pause here. Remember, Postman argued that TV removes content from context, creating incoherence and making sequence into mincemeat. Isn't this exactly what Johnson is describing? Non-linear storylines and inverted chronology? This is the message conforming to its medium.
Lastly, Johnson argues that this desire to participate culminates with the Internet. The Internet is quintessentially electronic—vastly networked but rarely closed or complete. We don't expect anything to be the final word on the Internet. Instead, Internet users collect the various scatterplot points. They themselves are the lines connecting the dots into a coherent picture or at least a general trend. Users become the means for closure. They are involved in making the picture, and in making it meaningful. This is what participation means.
But the images we create from the various bits we collect around the—these images still have no context, just like the photograph. There's no logical connection between the image and wherever it finds itself—say, an RSS feed. After you're done reading this blog, you'll read another, and perhaps you'll notice some connected element. But you make this connection. In this way, Internet users find themselves part of an image, one without context.
As I mentioned to earlier, Johnson's complexification theory points more to our relentless drive to make meaning. Whatever increase in intelligence we gain is incidental. With an episode like Seinfeld's "The Betrayal," movies like Eternal Sunshine, and the Internet, our lives are increasingly chaotic and unintelligible. But we are meaning-seekers and so, given these bits, we connect them together mercilessly into something that seems to make sense. We force them into coherence. We demand meaning. But our media resist meaning. They resist a seamless integration between content and context.
Johnson's complexification is simply electric media's propensity toward meaninglessness, where content and context are obliterated. TV, film, and the Internet are making mincemeat of sequence and logic. Complexification is not the result of increasing intelligence but the requirement of increasing media unintelligibility. Whatever intelligence Johnson identifies is instead humanity's relentless drive for meaning.
In the electronic age, our pursuit of meaning runs counter to our technology's tendencies. Our intelligence is in our increasingly creative ways of connecting the dots.
UPDATE: Newsweek published today a piece about the decline in childrens's creative intelligence. Like Felix Salmon, I'd be interested to hear Steven Johnson's reaction. (HT: Fourth Floor Baker)
UPDATE: Alan Jacobs speculates about how Clay Shirky will respond to the findings published in Newsweek.