Amusing Ourselves to Death: On The Merits of Print

I’ve recently finished reading Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Written in the early 1980s, it looks at the transition from written word communication and discourse to television - and makes the assertion (reasonably well backed, IMO) that television, as commonly used, turns everything it touches into entertainment. Entertainment being no problem at all, but when it turns political campaigns into entertainment, news into entertainment, etc, this is a problem.

In many ways, it expands out the concept of “The medium is the message” - that the technology chosen to communicate a message very heavily impacts the actual message being communicated. Written text tends to encourage long, connected thoughts tracing a reasonable flow, television tends to encourage short entertainment of the now, and the two are quite at odds with each other. Once a given population is accustomed to television, they’ve literally lost the ability to handle long form text/verbal communication (examples were given of various public debates back before radio, in which the debates were hours long, and speakers at various fairs would often present for most of a day at a time.

One of my general complaints about modern methods of communicating is that they use a huge amount of data to communicate remarkably little - I’ll point to YouTube here as a prime case. There exist things video is good for, but I’m quite comfortable in saying it’s horrible at replacing the written word. I’d quite literally rather read three books about a new subject than watch a few videos on it, mostly because I generally expect that if I’ve read a few books, I have at least some overview of the material from a few different perspectives, and there’s the time and space to weave something complex out of what are usually complex subjects.

There’s certainly a bit of “old man yelling at clouds” in the book, but I was also quite entertained with his expectations of computer technology towards the end… just about right!

Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data—will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

And, in general, this book just encourages me to keep using text as much as possible for communication.

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You know I agree with your aversion for the video medium. It’s not worthless, but it’s it’s use cases are limited compared to the amount of times it’s used. A lot of that, of course, is incentives - full views = monetization = stretch it out as long as possible.

On the other hand, it’s not different from, if you take a generous view, a podcast or other type of emotive speech mechanism, and there are plenty of those which are worthwhile, both as news and commentary.

Print, in the terms of newsprint, is still the same in the terms of being a linear streaming mechanism without immediate reply. There is the editorialist, and there is the audience to be convinced. Rebuttals must be in an equivalent degree of sophistication and likely, not immediate or inserted in context, but posted days or weeks later in a paper of equal renown to be valid at all.

So, even the ‘written word’ has plenty of flaws.

I think the inability to immediately reply is a feature, personally. Taking one’s time to formulate a response (and the luxury of being given it) are in short supply these days. One of the things I will say that radio/voice/the spoken narrative has for it over image-based forms of communication such as television/instagram/etc. is that you’re forced to use your active imagination, practice short-term and even medium-term memory recall, and hold the ability to form and turn over ideas as they evolve via the story. These are important and useful skills that are largely bypassed by the much more highly connected and immediate reactions initiated by the visual cortex.

In terms of linearity, I disagree that print is a streaming form of media. The first time one wishes to come to grips with a particular argument perhaps, but after that it is random-access and fast-scan friendly. Video much less so, and much less usefully so. You cannot easily lay out a video to identify the section you want quickly without indexing, and any video long enough to contain significant verbal information of sufficient complexity is incredibly difficult to use to find specific references or sections from. Indexing and bookmarking video is laborious and non-standard, and in fact relies on the written word. So, in my view, print is far superior for rapid access to fractional information, for reference usage, and for all of the other forms of frequent access that one might apply to the concepts worthy of the effort to reduce to print.

Spoken word ends up being closer to print than video, at least in well done forms. I listen to some conservative call in shows just keep tabs on what’s going on, and that’s certainly not a well done, coherent form. “Read headline. Grunt. Move on.”

The lack of speed is, IMO, a feature - it requires time for thought, and often times my initial reaction to something and my thoughts a few days later are far from identical. It also requires putting together a coherent argument, which is something we’ve lost. “Sad!” is not a well thought out response to something, popular though it seems to be among a certain prolific twit.

The ability to rapid scan, though, is absolutely worth a lot. I utterly hate video walkthroughs of stuff, because for the most part, I’m looking for some specific step. I can scan a text-and-photos writeup (of the variety I tend to write) quickly and see if it has the information I want. I can’t scan a 20 minute video quickly.

I’ve probably said this before somewhere, but I find as I get older, I read slower; but I also read better. A big part of that probably comes from having a bigger knowledge base in my head of other things I’ve read. More experiences to compare things to. Also I find I’m better able to ask questions and ‘read between the lines’ so to speak.

I ask myself questions like “What do I know about this author’s background that would influence his thinking?” “How does this fit with/against other authors I’ve read on the subject?” “Is his evidence really supportive of the conclusion just presented?”

Then again, rapid scanning can happen faster in print than a video too. It’s easy to re-read a complex section of text. It’s annoying to try to jump around a video trying to find where a certain part began so I can review it.

Perhaps it could be said that writing encourages the author into a certain, more regimented structure, video often the opposite. There’s a lot of books and articles I’ve read that were fantastic, clear and concise. Then I hear that author make a youtube video or lecture and it’s a disjointed, rambling mess. They’re brilliant people, with great ideas and knowledge, but I’d rather read their ideas than listen to them in a lecture.

There are exceptions of course, but it seems a rarer sort that builds up a good outline/structure to a video presentation than print.

The Shallows talks about how we process written material quite a bit - and you’re exactly right. We use the existing knowledge we have as a lattice to hang the new information on, and if we lack the relevant lattice, stuff just goes sailing on through without being incorporated.

You can write nonsensical, disjointed books, but most people put them down…

Speed of rebuttal isn’t speed of consumption, though. You disagree with a NYT Op-ed, well touch. You’re a nothing who doesn’t matter. You only matter if your opinion gets reposted on another Paper of Record™, etc. To most people, it’s a unidirectional mechanism. And the rebuttal would need to come from Somebody (as determined by those who publish editorials, of course).

For something like a major paper, yes - but that’s not changed by them having a website. There used to be plenty of magazines and print journals and such that were far easier to write into.