Television and American life: A historiography

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Intro. At its core, this topic is about the history of technology. As such, it is necessary to examine the numerous theories and philosophies of technology in order to gain a more complete understanding of television as a technological artifact in history. Even though this topic examines the early years of television, I feel that it is still important to examine opinions of modern technology compared to early opinions at television's threshold.

One of the leading media theorists of the twentieth century was Marshall McLuhan. Among other things, McLuhan coined the term "the medium is the message," meaning that the form of a technology determines its content. Borrowing from Neil Postman's example, using smoke signals to communicate restricts the content that can be conveyed. Smoke cannot achieve any high levels of discourse simply due to its limitations in form of expression. Similarly, since television is limited to a conversation of images, it is also limited in its levels of discourse. McLuhan describes the relationship between form and content as symbiotic, by which the medium is embedded in the message and crucially affects how the message is interpreted. In McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he asserts that the media themselves should be the focus of study rather than its content. He believes that conventional understanding of media concentrates on "the scratch but not the itch." McLuhan goes further to claim, quite controversially, that content has a comparatively little effect on society when judged against the form itself. He believes, for example, that television will have the same effect on society regardless of its programming. For McLuhan, the moral questioning of media's material is a matter of perspective. He is more interested in studying the effects of the media than critiquing it. To demonstrate the instability of opinions, McLuhan juxtaposes the "considerable amount of alarm and revulsion expressed concerning the growing quantity of printed books" at the end of the seventeenth century with the fear that the printed word is nearing extinction today. Depending on the perspective, media might be viewed as a gift or a burden.

As we enter the world of media criticism, it would be a shame to ignore the work of Neil Postman. Writing more than a dozen books on the effect of media on society, his most famous work is probably Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In this extremely well researched and well constructed text, Postman argues his thesis that with the advancements in modern communication "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment." Comparing Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with George Orwell's 1984, Postman reasons that Huxley's world where people are controlled by pleasure is much more realistic than Orwell's world where people are controlled by pain. Postman has no difficulty accepting television as the present-day soma that induces people to relinquish their democratic rights in favor of amusement.

Postman elaborates on many of Marshall McLuhan's ideas. Altering McLuhan's famous slogan, Postman claims that "the medium is the metaphor." This new slogan is meant to emphasize that the media do not simply convey information, but instead, they are "metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another." In line with McLuhan's idea that form determines content, Postman argues that different media are appropriate for different kinds of information. Images, according to Postman, do not necessitate the same rational inquiry required to understand print typography. Television expects only a passive involvement from its viewers. Typography, on the other hand, requires active participation from its reader to organize the words presented into coherent meaning. Television programs have time constraints and continue their programs independent of the viewer. When deciphering a written work, the reader is the one who controls the progression of information. Because of its ease of comprehension and its emotional power, television is more appropriate to entertain than present important information.

On the whole, much of media criticism focuses on the destruction of American culture and the disconnection of society. There are very few sources that view popular culture from an optimistic perspective. Steven Johnson, in Everything Bad Is Good For You, supports the polemic that popular culture is actually making people smarter. By examining the evolution of video games and television, Johnson argues that these technologies are becoming more complex and increasing our cognitive capacities, instead of agreeing with the "assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards."

Before delving into his book, Johnson establishes the need to do away with "the tyranny of morality play." He believes that most people have trouble evaluating the integrity of the media without assuming the need for a "healthy message" to be good for society. Indeed, television has seen an increase in darker storylines and antiheroes. He prefers to look at media "as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons." It is not that Johnson is not concerned with these issues. It is just that these issues are not the focus of his book.

After receiving political criticism that Everything Bad supported unfettered capitalism as a means of creating a smarter culture, Johnson corrected this by describing himself as "much more of a technological determinist than an economic determinist."

Taken at face value, many of Johnson's arguments are circumstantial and don't represent media and people on the whole. Johnson explains that "this book should not be mistaken for an extended justification for sitting around glued to the Xbox 360 all day." One of the main reasons he wrote this book was because "the virtues of playing baseball and making friends on the playground and communing with nature are universally agreed on...but the discussion of the popular media has relentlessly focused on the negatives." Seen in his expert writing skills, Johnson is not proposing the complete eradication of literature in favor of movies and video games as educational tools. More accurately, he is postulating that these technologies have merit as well and deserve further consideration.