4.1.08

The Massacre of Human Intelligence

In today's culture, television has replaced typed print as its primary means of communicating ideas into the “conversations” we hold in daily life। A shift is taking place in the media, whereas we are focused more on the visual imagery that television provides for us as opposed to the substance of any particular idea। Information has begun to be packaged and sold to us, often times received out of context and not at all on the basis of its intellectual content but rather on its ability to satisfy our appetite for entertainment। It is this idea that being entertained takes precedent over being informed that confuses and corrupts America's sense of itself। As information is replaced by unassertive images, and knowledge is turned into just another commodity for consumption, the overall awareness of the public to specific issues is compromised as its discourse disintegrates।

 With so many televisions in American (and international) households, our entire sense of understanding seems to stem from the information we receive from this particular medium. And have you seen what's on TV? Nothing worthy of being deemed too intellectually stimulating, that’s for sure. Happy faces and bright colors interspersed with shorter clips of happy faces and bright colors. I can flip to one of hundreds of channels to “learn” about a particular subject- politics, local events, history, geography, etc, but this style of learning is so divorced from any type of critical thinking or rational understanding that what is initially informative material falls flat on its face, opting to fail in its ability to educate and choosing instead to hold our interest for as long as it can before a competing channel grabs it. We are reduced to the passive receptive idea of learning rather than an active and critical one.

The argument that form excludes the content, or rather, that necessary ideas are lost on the public through its translation over the television, seems to warrant a serious reassessment of what should be addressed regarding any kind of restructuring of television and what it has to offer. Who's to say what is right and wrong, and what is newsworthy in general? If I turn on a nation-wide broadcast of a major network delivering material they consider to be of value to me, then why is it that I am either stuck watching a segment about whether or not Albus Dumbledore, a character in a children's book, is gay or not, or whether it is Clearasil or Neutrogena that makes my skin look softer? It is true that many TV news programs will choose one particular event to concern itself with over another, not because one is inherently more important than another, but because one produces better ratings for the program. If this is the case, to what extent (if any) should we mediate this medium? Does our capitalist social system even allow for the production of real knowledge at the expense of a profit? If not, we can begin to see public awareness sacrificed for public sedation, as a veil of “truthiness,” (a word created by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report to mean what a person wants to be true, whether or not it is devoid of any type of factual evidence) descends around the public, keeping what is perceived as “reality” separate from what is in fact going on. This sets the stage for biased information, slander, propaganda, and a general “un-education” of the population to accompany the insertion of TV into the modes in which we learn. Television can be used to keep the status quo intact, propagating and reproducing the blinded and inefficient manner in which we stay aware. “What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation...information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” (Postman 107) As fragmented piece of random information gives way to fragmented piece of random information, we realize that any information we receive becomes interchangeable with another, that a segment on international war has virtually the same effect in its ability to entertain a consumer of news as a special on new advances in hair growth may.

 

  Why is this? Has our culture become so completely absorbed in such a superficial and shallow existence of self-involvement and disconnection with others that we are unwilling to deprive ourselves of the luxury of amusement? Can we attribute this desensitization towards information to the mainstream ideas of capitalism and its inherent values that permeate our culture- that time is money and should be spent in ways beneficial to its holder. But what is beneficial? Is it right to say that to entertain oneself is detrimental to a culture simply because it digresses, detracts, and distracts from ideas that it is in our best interest to strive toward a common good, investing in the commonwealth?

 

The idea that we put so much trust in what our televisions say to us, how to think about what, may be a testament to our driving need for authority, or perhaps that we have no other source from which we derive our education. That we need someone like Bill O'Reilley or Jon Stewart to tell us what we should think about the way our world works bypasses any type of critical analysis we may undergo as we are told exactly what to think. “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.” (Postman 102) Instead of receiving objective news in which we can begin to formulate ideas about the events addressed, we can simply flip through the channels until we find a program whose content entertains us while giving off the impression that we are at the same time being informed fairly.

 

As I have previously stated, leaving ourselves vulnerable to having our minds warped by biased information leads to a general halt of any kind of mental progress. If progress comes from the fusing of information into a kind of thesis or argument to promote a certain ideal, then the absence of particular information can create an unfinished thesis that is completely ineffective, not because it comes from a less credible source, but because this new kind of knowledge is based on a half-truth, or even a non truth. By making decisions without knowing the entire situation and all the facts, we set ourselves up for failure, demonstrated in this modern age by such political messes like the one in Iraq right now. At the beginning of this administration's war on terror, everyone was glued to his or her television sets. As more and more of the American government's “information” came to us on various channels, the publics sense of duty and justice about what should be done became so completely dependent on what they were being told that when a discrepancy in the facts regarding nuclear weapons became apparent, we found ourselves in a very compromising position in which we had no real desire to be there in the first place. The result is the years of rebuilding that will have to be undertaken in order to produce a prosperous nation.

 

I have no real knowledge of the war in Iraq (I blame TV for not informing me), but my absence of real knowledge is a common theme in respect to where the future of our nation is going. When news programs are admittedly promoting specific ideals or pushing for different ideas, it is hard to distinguish between what is real, and what is made to resemble the real. Just as interest groups and those unnamed persons on the sidelines or in the shadows financially back the presidential candidates, every channel is out for its own best interest, but also for the interests of those who are invested in its cause.  Channels need no longer respond attentively to any demands of the public because the public is so uneducated they don't know what they want. All television networks need to do is to appeal to advertisers, selling their integrity to the highest bidders. And if networks no longer feel the need to promote the truth other than addressing briefly before switching to something completely irrelevant, then their audience is almost at their mercy as to what they are going to learn on any given day. “If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.” (Postman 126)

 

As long as we live in a capitalist society, where television adheres to the same rules as any other business and is considered to be the marketplace in which competing networks vie for advertising and ratings, educating the people and the entire notion of striving for the common good will always take a backseat to profit. Educational programs for children and channels that create their identity by catering to more “intellectual” audiences interested in history, travel, cooking, or whatever are created under the pretenses that television can be used as a tool to help people learn. Unfortunately the medium of the TV undermines any real learning process that could potentially take place, as it is inherently unable to stimulate any real process of active engagement. Television simply does not allow for any of the conditions needed to advocate intellectual stimulation and rational argument.

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