Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News

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Neil Postman, as a philosopher, is deceptively simple. His writing is so easy that by this point it took me seconds to read a page. McLuhan’s name also appear, so it’s obvious he’s not providing new paradigms of thought. He continues McLuhan’s critical examination of technology, not taking it for granted by asking what it means. If the medium is the message, then this is book expands on news as a medium.

Before I talk about this book, I must make the theory clear. When McLuhan uses it, he means any kind of technology. For him, the newspaper and the text are two different medias. Postman takes a saner, more intiuiative approach to his theory and uses the tradition of medium as a tool for transmitting content. He examines what kind of content works better with medium according to its traits. Although it’s a different modus operandi of analysis, it’s still an extremely useful one. Actually, it’s necessary for us to understand any kind of communication.

Postman and Powers talk a lot about the importance of advertising. No one should be surprised by this. Ads are everywhere. Just go outside. An activity as innocent as waiting for the bus will involve advertising, in the station and on the bus itself. The chapters about media-as-business don’t reveal too much since, in my experience, people already perceive the TV networks as a business anyway.

The interesting and important parts are when the authors discuss what news is. It’s the type of discussion we don’t have enough. When you criticize the news, or TV, for being stupid people will reply with, ‘oh, it’s business, of course they will do what makes money’. Living in a strictly Neoliberal mindset, this makes sense. Adopting a less dogmatic mindset means asking yourself what kind of product you’re consuming. Without asking yourself this, you can’t tell the difference between a snack and a meal.

It’s this crucial distinction that makes all the figures about adverts alarming. News isn’t exactly entertainment. Things that happen in it are supposed to real. News show stand in contrast to other shows in that they’re meant to provide information. That’s why you’re angrier when Trump says ‘grab them by the pussy’ then when the Joker abuses Harley Quinn. Clearly, news are a different product than other shows, like RealiTV or cartoons.

Since news deliver information, the authors always view news by that prism. If these parts seem worrying, it’s only because they force you to ask whether you’re actually learning anything by the news. Their examination of the visual image is fantastic. It’s not an attack on the image itself. Rather, they examine what kind of information an image delivers, and what ideas work better in images.

News aren’t documentaries (A subject they sadly didn’t touch). News consists of incomplete stories framed as complete with pictures. Yet the story is so much more than a picture. A picture isn’t actually worth a thousand words since these words can contradict each other. They also point out how images express more than tell, show something concrete but don’t include context. It’s not that images are bad, but news information demands context, order, and meaning. Images aren’t enough to deliver those.

The print media also contains pictures, but then they analyze its structure. It’s another thing that’s easy to miss. The newspaper is a mosaic of images, where there is less hierarchy and more control for the reader. Although the editor decides which items will be on the paper and how much they will stick out, they can’t control the order of reading. Choosing to watch one story before the other in TV news is quite hard work. Why put all this effort into rewinding and fast-forwarding?

It’s sad that the authors didn’t emphasis the viewers’ ability to be selective on the media they consume. Although they’re not totally deterministic, Powers’ final conclusion, when discussing new technology leans towards gatekeeping. What he misses is that gatekeepers won’t necessarily care or know the well-being of the viewer. A gatekeeper by definition puts less power in the viewer’s hand. The power of selection is what we need to teach.

Some optimistic researchers will say we’re all naturally selective. I don’t think so, and the high amount of TV watching and viral content is more evidence of that. Selectivity means people will have a guideline of their own that makes them choose the content. They will not scroll the popular YouTube videos to see what’s happening, but rather search for specific topics. The internet actually does increase selectivity, mostly because you have to with all this information.

What they miss about information glut is that it demands being selective, unlike the TV. The TV, as a medium, is a regression in terms of intelligence and ability to convey information. Postman keeps proving this here. The authors missed that technology changes and can amplify parts of ourselves. Their pessimism misses the internet’s nature of information glut which forces people to be selective in some way. That said, selectivity demands critical thinking and that demands a lot of effort and our education system don’t really support it.

An interesting chapter focuses on the televising of trials. It’s one of the highlights, since it illustrates more clearly than any chapter how TV works. When a trial is televised, everyone knows that one person is tried. We’re judges by nature, and by putting someone on TV you put the person in front of millions of judges. Beyond that, the nature of summary of TV means our judgment will be quicker and less informed. Many of us will not even know what the final decision was. We’ll know someone’s been tried, assume he’s guilty or not and move on.

I agree with the authors that TV should stay out of court. They spread disinformation, not information. A person witnessing a trial is seeing it as it is, all the information with no edited highlights. On the news, you can’t show the whole trial but have to edit the highlights.

This book is directly related to Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book laid down the nature of TV and Postman’s demand for a boundary between information and entertainment. It is a discussion for a different book, but keep in mind these are some of the assumptions Postman and Powers bring. Information and entertainment must not go together. They don’t view TV as bad in and of itself, at least not in this book but merely as horrible at providing information. Although they expose their bias of technological pessimism a little later, they still lean towards being critical instead of dogmatic. After all, they provide some tools of analyzing language and these tools can be used against them. The point of the book is anyway not to make you agree with Postman so much as provide you with tools to be more critical, more on-guard.

It’s a good book on communication and media studies. It should be read by everyone since everyone is affected by the news. That said, it’s on a small scale. It doesn’t provide a theory but apply it. We need such books since sometimes theories can exist so much time in the abstract they lose any foundation in reality. Anyone expecting a series of revelation might be disappointed that this is not as ambitious as Amusing Ourselves to Death. It does provide a nice extension of the argument and is more accessible to layman, since it’s more of a toolbox than a theory. Postman’s books do sell, but they should sell more. Here is a philosopher who deals directly with life, cares deeply for being human and isn’t hard to understand at all.

3.5 fake news reports out of 5

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Serial Experiments Lain

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I don’t get it. Maybe this is just a relic from a time before we talked about the Singularity and before the internet.

The anime clearly strives for something. It has a lot of philosophical quotes. Characters say things like “what isn’t remembered never happened”. There is typography on the screen, references to Roswell and Jung and the theme of ‘identity’ (Why do I always roll eyes when I see this?).

Now, it’s not just a collection of anime-style drawings stuck together in a pretentious and unbearable form. Lain doesn’t just copy the form of ‘intelligent’ storytelling. There is always a drive behind it. It feels more like the writers have a lot to ask and to say. They’re so excited by it that they will use all these techniques with hope of transmitting it to the viewer.

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Too bad it never really gels. It asks questions about identity, but how? How is having different versions of Lain automatically question the theme of ‘identity’? Couldn’t they think of a less predictable and perhaps more meaningful way to do it?

It’s almost as if the themes are expressed and name-dropped, but not actually demonstrated. Having people mention God and omniscience doesn’t mean you explore the theme of theology. You need to show how it affects characters’ lives and perception of reality. You need to show what effects such a God would have if it existed.

It’s not enough to just have characters with multiple identities. You need this to blend into the story. You need this to be a meaningful story element first of all. Themes shouldn’t just be talked about. You need moments that demonstrate the effect of these ideas. Only complete morons think philosophy is solely for discussions. We constantly act on our philosophies.

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This attitude towards philosophy is perhaps what fuels the anime, and what ruins it. It’s a shame because there’s more drive than pretense, more desire to explore than to look smart. Lain never feels like more than an armchair exercise, a ‘what if?’ thought experiment that has profound words but lacking conclusions.

Often, there are moments that point to a brilliant anime. The anime isn’t a monochrome grimdark piece of crap. Even if the mood is generally gloomy, it’s not afraid of showing the sun or the occasional smile. Its setting is believable enough psychologically. It also has a clear aesthetics and knows how to express it. Still shots of wires appear often, but ever enough to become distracting. They add some atmosphere and go away. Artificial light also gets a lot of focus, but never too much. Plenty of times, it’s just another element in the show. Unlike its little brother Texhnolyze, the anime’s scenes always have more than one purpose.

Its sense of style saves what could’ve been hilariously bad scenes. There are almost whole episodes dedicated to info dumps about certain topics. They’re entertaining though. The combination of imagery with the electronic soundtrack fits the mood. Since exchanging information is a big theme, this technique of info dumps actually fits themetically too.

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This sort of ‘experimental narrative’ isn’t too original if you watched a film like Pi or Eraserhead, but the creators know it’s not enough. You need to do more than just rip off the conventional story structure. So by replacing it with odd imagery that’s always loaded, the anime is amusing enough. It never just tells you how it intelligent it is. It tries to make you involved in the imagery, in its meaning and emotional implication.

All this effort is wasted, though. In the end, the story is too divorced from reality. It gets lost in its experimental narrative and weird imagery. It’s as if I was too busy figuring out what’s going on, what it expresses. It was too distant. It was too experimental, as if I’m busy figuring out the anime rather than thinking about the themes. I’m not interested in pounding my head to understand a cryptic philosophical quote. I want a statement so profound I could connect it logically to a hundred subjects. Crypticness isn’t profound. A wide-eyed approach is.

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I can imagine this story working if only the creators scaled back a bit. Have a little more dialogue. Have a little more exposition. Tone down the weird imagery a little. Focus on asking whether the ideas are clear, and less on weirding the audience out. Think, first of all, why theology and identity and communication matters. Only then set out to explore them. If you can’t convince me the theme is important in the first place, I’m not interested in thinking about it.

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Of course, I’m not writing it off as just a bunch of pretentious dudes patting themselves on the back. It’s a, well, failed experiment. It kept me curious enough that I enjoyed it even while being utterly confused. It does have a conclusion that ties it together. It has a purpose, but I wasn’t sure what it is. Hopefully someday I’ll know.

It’s better than Texhnolyze, at least.

Post-Script: This review has been written a long time ago and I’ve been wary of publishing it. The anime isn’t confusing in the traditional, ‘I don’t know what’s happening so it’s good!’ way. It’s too stylish for me to write it off as pretentious doodle, but it’s too abstract to explore its themes in a satisfying manner.

I’m reminded of abstract stories like Paranoia Agent and Pi. These stories relied more on meaningful scenes than coherent storytelling, but exploring their ideas was their primary focus. They never get unnecessarily weird. It’s easy to follow the abstract parts because the themes are established and followed. Lain dives headfirst into the surrealism with so much conviction, it’s as if the excitement over being experimental overtakes the desire to explore ideas.

I consider this my most inconclusive review so far. I’ll need to watch this again soon to determine whether it’s just pretentious doohicky or if it really went over my head.

3 boxes of cereal out of 5

Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

Dennou Coil

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You can’t talk about Dennou Coil¬†without talking about Digimon Tamers. They don’t just use a similar technique to tell their stories. Their stories revolve around the same theme. The ending also includes a girl trapped in a visualization of grief. It never feels like a rip off. Both shows wanted to explore a subject that needs exploration, and found different inspirations.

The core difference between the two is the mode of storytelling. Tamers was a heroic journey, but Coil is closer to something like Mushishi. It’s more concerned with the world it created and what it means.

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Nature is odd, but so is technology. At some point, inventions become so advanced we can’t predict their behavior. Even the most simple ones contain surprises. They often spin out of control, and the internet is the perfect example of this.

Do the people who invented the internet thought it would be used to exchange Japanese cartoons, cat photos and have people’s suicide notes on them? The internet is now out of our control. It’s a constantly-changing frontier, with pages being born and dying. It’s a way to connect to others, where bullshit rumours spread and where you can escape your reality.

The technology in this show is just a visualization of this idea. It juxtaposes the exploration of the virtual frontier and the physical one. You might think kids today are all just stuck on their computers, but weren’t the astronauts stuck on exploring the moon, rather than the Earth?

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Space is not the final frontier. The internet is another one, but it’s one that we create. The spaces weren’t here before. Every piece of data was created by someone else, a product of their thoughts. Exploring the internet is exploring what others think, whether you’re looking for funny pictures someone uploaded, their writings or stuff they thought was cool and reblogged. I think once someone said we are the final frontier. If this is true, then the internet is how we explore it.

The kids in this show may seem too independent,but this isn’t a plot device. Kids on the internet are often more independent and loose than outside of it. If you play outside, your mom can still look out the window and see what you’re doing. If you go somewhere, she’ll want to know where.

It’s easier to build an independent culture when you’re on the internet. Close the door or minimize the window when mom comes in. If she doesn’t know the address, she’ll never know what’s going on. Even if she does, you’re creating a new identity she might not recognize.

The new culture the kids have built in Dennou Coil isn’t alien. I’ve seen it happen myself. I remember those message boards that were the beginning of Nerdom in my country. I still see communities with a distinct identity in message boards or video games.

Here, we got a physical reality along it. So the rivalries aren’t just name-dropping in forum posts but the old fun of shooting each other. That’s something people do online all the time. They shoot cyber-avatars of other humans.

These avatars can be convincingly real, even when they were just pixels. That’s the problem with the internet. A lot of it appears real, and the line between reality and the virtual blurs. Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Densuke only appears when you put your cyber-glasses, but you can only see Jupiter with a telescope. Densuke is not a real, biological dog. A real dog is also not a virtual one. What makes one dog better than the other?

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Both dogs actually exist. Both respond to us. Even a virtual pet in an RPG game responds to your actions. The fact one is manmade isn’t much of a difference. Dog breeds are an invention of men. The difference is that the virtual world is full of data and information, but nothing sensory.

Stuff on the internet is not something you can feel. That’s why some people can be social on message boards but socially neurotic in real life. Densuke is a virtual dog and will never be a real one. If we try to program humans, they will just be virtual versions. They will never be a real human.

Grief does its thing, though. It messes with our minds, and we want more to find a new reality where the event didn’t happen than find good in our reality. A character gains the option of creating her own reality without the death of a close person.

A purely man-made reality is nothing, though. Nothing is purely man-made or exists on its own. A reality where nothing is connected is barren and dry. This is the same world of the D-Reaper. A grieving person can’t escape into his world. He’ll just dive deeper into his own sadness.

All we create is just a reflection of us. Isako couldn’t re-create with her brother. She could enjoy a projection of him, something similar. It’s not the real thing, and in the end it’s not a proper replacement. Things can’t be replaced with second hand versions.

If this sounds like it’s too heavy for children, then you’re not paying attention to the best of children’s fiction out there. Children deal with loss. Their stories need to address it.

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While Dennou Coil treats it with maturity and empathy, it falls short of Tamers. Its technology is more imaginative and conceptually deep. The Digimon are a plot device, but the idea of a ‘virtual reality’ isn’t explored. Tamers kept the technical stuff at bay. At too many instances the mechanics of the virtual reality will be explored. None of it is ever coherent. It’s just a physical manifestation of the internet and that’s it.

Dennou Coil also sports a problematic art style. There is a great difference of creativity in the character design and the virtual reality design. The designs of anything virtual are beautiful. They’re simple, but the little details are excellent. The Illegals’ black, blurry body, Densuke’s round shape, Oyaji’s lack of mouth and small eyes are all details that stick out.

The character design does the minimalist-realist Mushishi did. It’s not as bad as that one. They find subtle details to give them personality, but too often they feel dry. Auntie is supposed to be the beautiful character, yet nothing about her looks significantly different than the others.

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Two episodes are noteworthy. One is the comic apex of the series. It’s a brief history of humanity as if they were the hairs that compose a beard. The episode is complete with a bearded old lady. The other episode comes right after it, and is actually the most psychologically deep one of the series. The climax isn’t as powerful as Tamers’ D-Reaper. In that episode, it is. If only they could use the ideas there, reshuffle them and make a different climax.

Even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of Digimon Tamers, it comes close. It’s not treading the same grounds. It uses the same tools to tell an equally deep story with its own take on things. In some places, it’s weirder and bolder. Anyone who wants to see how good children’s fiction can be should watch this.

4 illegals out of 5

Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler – The Future of Us

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The amount of people registered on Facebook is higher than the population of any country. Ever since the internet’s inception, its been affecting our speech and thinking. Popular sites are especially effective at this. The whole ‘intellectual property’ discussion became huge thanks piracy. File sharing sites proved there’s something between selling and buying. Social networks became an essential part of people’s lives. Facebook is perhaps the most important one. We expect pretty much anyone to have a Facebook account, just like we expect anyone to have a phone number. If you don’t think Facebook deserves to be a center for a novel, you and the zeitgeist are probably not on speaking terms.

The premise of The Future of Us can sure sound gimmicky, but exactly because it’s Facebook that has the potential to be great. It doesn’t get there, but that’s because the authors are hesitant to try hard enough. They got enough confidence and intention to not make this a typical romantic comedy, even if the tropes appear often. The novel is more concerned with the characters and the themes than trying to great a romantic thrill, but not enough.

The novel’s highlights are the descriptions of the relationship with Facebook. Facebook plays a different role in this story. It serves as some sort of prophet, rather than a social networking site. Yet the character’s relationship with it mirrors ours. They’re obsessed with their future selves like one will be obsessed with a crush. They look at the surface details, base their whole conclusions on them and do what they can to change them.

Despite being a culture with a lot less internet, Facebook quickly takes the same power it has on them like it has on us. That’s because it’s a site that allows you to get easy and quick information about other people. It allows you sum yourself up in a few statuses and pictures. It would have been successful during any time. The desire to know others and expose ourselves was always there. It’s what communication’s all about. It’s not unique to an internet-obsessed culture like us.

It also helps to have good two leads. Emma and Josh aren’t boring romantic leads. They’re two people, each with their own distinct view on things. It especially helps how Mackler breaks stereotypes without really trying. Emma’s existence isn’t one guy. In fact, she’s a fairly promiscous and sexually open person. It’s not presented as something to be cured, or as something bold that makes Emma a feminist icon. It’s to give her a different worldview than Josh.

Josh isn’t just the nice guy that the girl needs to grow up in order to appreciate. By the time he becomes the right choice for Emma, it’s less because ‘he’s not a jerk’ and more because of the relationship between them and his other qualities. Asher didn’t write him as a martyred nice guy, but as a more laid-back person that counters Emma’s ambitions.

Having the right ingridients isn’t enough though. Asher and Mackler are competent, but there’s nothing here that raises the novel above merely ‘good’. It may be the prose, which flows well and is free from bullshit, but contains no unique voice or insight to the characters. It may that the side characters don’t have a life outside the plot, and they exist mostly to be the wise men who give the main character’s advice.

The plotting is also generic. There’s a side-plot that feels very out of place. It felt like it was ripped from an old draft that was written more like a comic thriller. It may worked there, but the end result aims for something much deeper, so the sudden shift in tone doesn’t help. The progress of the romance is also disappointing. It’s more natural than most novels, and the authors don’t commit the sin of having the characters suddenly decide they’re in love. Yet, by the time they are, there isn’t enough basis for their relationships. There’s enough for them to be good friends, but they make unconvincing lovers.

There is room in the world for novels like this though. It’s not one that uses ‘light hearted’as an excuse to cover up flaws. It’s a genuinely entertaining story with good characters and interesting themes. It may not do more than that, but masterpieces can be exhausting. If romance or the internet are subjects you’re into, there’s more to enjoy than get angry at in The Future of Us.

3 likes out of 5