Updated: Oct 24, 2019
INVENTING & SHAPING OPINIONS
The social forum is full of opinions. With vast opportunities for people to share their thoughts online—i.e., especially on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—many opinions swirl around us in the form of sound bites (a.k.a. “sound bytes”). Cliché arguments emerge, and communal opinions tend to become repetitive and trite when surface-level ideas present us with popular one-liners (e.g.,“E-books will destroy reading!”). In contrast, philosophical or other academic entrances into argumentation invite us to use a constructive model of exploration to craft opinions more thoughtfully.
* Activity: Thinking about Opinions (~5 minutes)
Technology and its societal impact is a hot topic these days. Jot down some popular opinions about technology that you would call “repetitive” or “cliché.” Think of things you’ve read online or heard over and over again in conversation about technology. List them below:
Example: “E-books will destroy reading!”
* OK, let’s chat about these! (~5-7 minutes)
* Activity: Exploring and Responding to Rhetoric of Technology (~25 mins.)
We’ve covered some of the more simplistic, surface-level opinions about technology that we’ve heard in the social forum. Now, let’s analyze and respond to a more complex discussion of technological impact on society that comes from Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
Published in 1985, Postman’s book explores technological impact on society with a focus on television. At the start of chapter 6, he talks about a friend whose light had burned out right when he needed to study for a test in graduate school. The friend turned on the TV and used it as a light. Next, he talks about hotels’ use of the TV to post announcements (something still very much in use today). He also writes about a woman who used her TV as a bookshelf. In the ideas following those examples, his critical point emerges.
I bring forward these quixotic uses of television to ridicule the hope harbored by some that television can be used to support the literate tradition. Such a hope represents exactly what Marshall McLuhan used to call “rear-view mirror” thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth.
What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?
Postman’s questions from the mid-1980s probe a deeper meaning, or societal impact, of the popularity of television at the time. At the same time, we can hear echoes of today’s concerns as well.
* Response Writing: What does Postman’s writing make you think about when you analyze today’s technologies, especially as related to our gadgets and social media platforms? How does this type of discussion differ from the one-liners we talked about earlier? Can you spot some important metaphors and/or philosophical themes that help to construct Postman’s opinion about technologies? Explain.
Let’s discuss when you’re finished!
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin, 1985.
This was from a talk I gave in February of 2019.
Ⓒ 2019, Amanda Sevilla, PhD