Neil Postman & Steve Powers – How to Watch TV News


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


The Facebook Suicide Algorithm or: Getting Closer to Getting Further Away

Recently, Facebook announced they got a new algorithm that’s supposed to spot suicidal behavior. What I’m about to present isn’t a claim for or against this. This doesn’t have much to do with my philosophy of suicide. Rather, I’ll analyze the technology based on the McLuhan-ian view of technology as extensions of man. My purpose is to present this analysis and let people decide whether this technology is worthwhile. Spoiler alert, I think the conclusion means it’s bad.

First off, here’s the basic theory of McLuhan. When McLuhan talks about ‘media’, he talks about any technology. Any technology is an extension of a function of us. A ‘weapon’ isn’t something that sprang out of nowhere. Every weapon is an extension of our ability to hurt other people. Another integral fact is that every extension is meant to be more effecient in achieving its end, but means less involvement.

A hammer is an extension of our ability to hit things. What the hammer does and what the hand does when they beat the nail isn’t any different. The difference is in the effiency and involvement. The hammer is better at knocking the nail, can insert it more quickly into the surface. Once we use the hammer, we’re also less involved in the process. This is more vague, but what it means is our experience is limited. When we knock the nail with the hammer, we don’t feel the nail.

To use the weapon example, think of the atom bomb. It is just an extension of our ability to cause destruction, only far worse than a fist hitting a board. When you hit something with your fist in order to destroy it, you’re deeply involved in the process, you feel the surface of the object being destroyed. The object has to be close to you so you’ll use your fist. The atom bomb makes us less involved, since we don’t feel the surface of the buildings being destroyed. We don’t even see the victims since we have to drop the bomb from far away. This fact explains why technology leads to far deadlier wars, since people are less involved in the act of killing.

Of course, it’s possible this is not exactly what McLuhan meant. His writing can be cryptic, but this is the framework I’m working with here.

Now, for the algorithm. People have the ability to reach out to people that they consider in need of help. In our case, being suicidal means needing help. Life’s positive value is an axiom for many. Currently users can report posts they consider problematic – by that, I mean containing signals of ‘self-harm’ or suicide. I’m not sure if this can be called an extension of our ability to reach out, since it is already embedded in a technology – Facebook, which is an extension of our social circle/neighbourhood. What the algorithm does is search for these signals of ‘self-harm’ and report them, instead of users doing it.

Our ability to offer help is extended via this algorithm. It serves the same function, yet unlike a single person it scans thousands or millions posts a day. This alone makes it more efficient, since no post will go unnoticed and every distressing signal will be reported. In general, people will report a distressing suicide if it will be explicit. A show of hands: How many of you had people reaching out to you because you expressed something sad? By ‘reaching out’, I don’t mean commenting but engaging in conversation. If our current methods were efficient, we wouldn’t create an algorithm to do this. We wouldn’t feel the need to extend this ability if we did it right, just as we don’t have a machine to extended our ability to chew because our teeth work.

Now comes the bad side. Extensions of ourselves make us less involved, which is good if the experience wasn’t worth much. No one is going to miss feeling the pain of hitting a needle. In this case, the algorithm makes us less involved because we’re no longer reaching out as a person. Many in Sanctioned Suicide mocked this. We’re less involved since we’re no longer giving personal feedback, seeing the distressing signals with our own eyes and containing it. We don’t contact the person and hear what they got to say and hear their feedback to our attempts at help. Although this algorithm will be more efficient at finding distressing signals, we will be less involved in the experience of reaching out.

The question is, is this bad? My answer is, yes.

Involvement is critical when it comes to personal issues. Else, we’d all confess our sins to Cleverbot. A common complaint against psychotherapy is that the therapist isn’t actually involved and doesn’t really care. It’s a profession for them, they ask questions for the salary. The whole idea of caring demands involvement. In order for someone to care for us, for our troubles to mean to them something they need to be involved in our life. They need to find our troubles affecting, consider them important. Try reading about a serial killer and then watching an interview with him. In the second instance, you’re more involved with this person, you see them and hear their voices. Empathy demands involvement, since we can’t be empathetic unless we imagine ourselves in the position of the person suffering.

The algorithm, by making us less involved in the process of reaching out to people undermines itself. By removing ourselves, we remove the most crucial thing. The basis of reaching out is that someone actually cares about your troubles and wants to be involved in getting through them. Remove the person who cares, and there is no ‘caring’. An algorithm cannot care, it is not a person.

The main message this algorithm sends is not that someone is so caring they’ll invent this technology but the opposite. Someone is so uncaring that they’ll invent a technology that will do the caring for them. You can lead a horse to water, but a bunch of professionals showing up at a person’s house doesn’t send the message you care but that you want control. The reason communities like Sanctioned Suicide work compared to R/SuicideWatch is that the people in SS are deeply involved with one another, they communicate and exchange ideas, don’t aim for a specific result but are just there with a person.

Let’s assume we take the position that suicide is bad. This algorithm is another symptom of our pathetic attempts at controlling people, rather than helping them. If suicidal people are really in a bad situation and in need of help, how can we help them by patronizing them, caging them, trying to control them rather than reaching out to them? We can’t complain about being mystified by suicide since we don’t even try to understand it. Technology now extends our ability to reach out for others, to letting them know we hear their troubles in such a way that actually tells them we don’t care.

If we really did care, we wouldn’t need to invent a technology to do it for us.