Postman on Bias and Truth
Brief thoughts worth consideration.
Hey there! Happy Thanksgiving week to my American readers.
I am not writing a full-blown piece this week given the upcoming holiday, but I did want to share a few quotes from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death that are not at all about social media, but I think are even more true in a culture dominated by social media than they were in the culture dominated by television when Postman wrote Amusing.
Consider these thoughts.
We Are Biased Toward Certain Media
Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.
Where we consume “truth” often leads us to believe certain things are true and certain things aren’t. In the world of social media, those who read the news on Twitter may believe something different about a particular event than someone who got their news from friends and family on Facebook.
We tend to be biased to believe something is true or not true based on the medium through which we consumed it. Unfortunately that often leads us astray, causing people of different ideologies to come to different conclusions about what is truth and what is fiction.
Later in Amusing, Postman writes:
I hope to persuade you that the decline of print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.
Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented."
The message in this clipping, from just about a page later than the previous, is much the same. We are getting sillier by the minute, and not really in a good way. Truth has come to be some sort of product of how we communicate with the people most like us through the platforms we believe are most fair to our favored beliefs.
Unfortunately, social media makes identifying truth more difficult than it has been historically.
Social Media Undermines Our Ability to Identify Truth
Postman writes later in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.
I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.
If our structure of discourse and way of thinking (epistemology) in the age of the television was in a worse state than in the age of print-based media, imagine its state now!
The dominant virtue of “entertainment” warped our epistemology when television ruled the day. What is the dominant virtue of the social media age in which we find ourselves? Speed? Content volume? Still entertainment? Some combination of the three? Regardless of your answer, it appears that our ability to think and process the information we consume is hamstrung even more now than it was when Postman wrote in 1985.
If you found these quotes helpful or interesting, I encourage you to purchase a copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death and read more! I cannot emphasize enough how much more relevant that book is today than when it was published in 1985.
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I read it a number of years ago, and the title really has stuck with me. Good idea to revisit it.