Thursday, January 14, 2010

Neal Postman and Haiti

Neal Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is getting somewhat dated, but I still highly recommend it. I read it six or seven years ago and it has really changed how I take in the news. Tim Challies reflects on Postman in light of the catastrophe in Haiti.

Here's a few sections from Challies great post (he quotes Postman extensively, marked off by quotes):
Our television culture grew out of the age of telegraphy. The great idea in the age of the telegraph was “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” While there was a time when only Haitians would have known about the disaster, today, in our rapidly-shrinking world, it is immediately visible from pole-to-pole. But telegraphy did more than make the world much smaller. It unexpectedly “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.”

We now have context-free information; “that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” And this is exactly what we are seeing today...

“Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.’” “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” As we moved away from a typographic world into a telegraphic and television world (and now into a digital world), information became separated from action. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency. This is a kind of information glut that makes us unable to react to all the information available to us or to do anything about most of it.

Three days from now we will have moved on. Maybe it will take four or five. But honestly, after the weekend, few of us will ever think of Haiti again. The next news story will come along and Haiti will be relegated to history. But three days from now and a week from now, the situation in Haiti will be far worse than it is today. The devastation will be more complete. The pain will be greater.

Postman calls the world brought about and fostered by television a “peek-a-boo world” “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

And isn’t that what the Haiti earthquake is for most of us? It is entertainment.
This is a very true, but the next paragraph is also very true, and please, let's not forget it.
In one regard I have to turn from Postman. Postman, though he knew his Bible well, was not a Christian and did not understand the power of prayer. Though we may be impotent to act, to actually go to Haiti and give aid, we can ask God to accomplish his purposes, even through so devastating a situation. We can pray for the nation and its people. We should pray for them, even, and especially for brothers in sisters in Christ who live in that country. We should pray that as people from around the world head to Haiti to feed the hungry and heal the sick, that they would take the gospel with them. And we can consider giving financially to credible organizations that will be involved in relief efforts (such as Compassion). It turns out that we are not entirely impotent in the aftermath of this great disaster.

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