I just finished reading the 20th anniversary edition of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourslves to Death. Even in the harsh light of hindsight, his analysis of television's effect on discourse remains compelling. In fact-when I consider the effectiveness of television as entertainment medium-I can see how efforts to transform news into entertainment in an attempt for the function to fit the form has contributed to the declining value of news.
Not surprisingly, where the book seems quaint is in the way in which its brilliant analysis of the effect the primacy of television as communication mechanism has had on discourse among the average Joe stops short of predicting the impact of the internet. This is certainly no reflection on Postman's prognosticating prowess: In 1985, when the book was originally published, computers had just begun their march to desktop domination. Yes, when Postman was writing, early iterations of the internet had been around for decades. However, the book was published 5 years before the web went live for widespread public use.
Postman's interpretation of the impact of television on news media is also predicated in large part on the historic print news medium-not that contemporary to his writing. As printing presses were released from the restrictive grasp of church and government, the common man became part of news creation and dissemination, rather than a passive recipient. However, as professional journalism and media monopolies arose, news delivered as an exchange of ideas and public debate faded (well before the advent of television). Significantly, though, the co-existence of television and newspapers as both news delivery and entertainment vehicles led to distinct differences between those reliant on television and those reading the daily paper to inform their understanding of local and global events.
This split became more pronounced as increasing numbers of people grew up with television as, in Postman's words, "our culture's principal mode of knowing about itself." Undoubtedly, a generation raised as recipients of sound-bite shallow news delivered by soap-star superficial talking heads would view the media as a one-way medium; passive "edutainment" from which one should soak up opinions appropriate for little more than cocktail party banter. And in some ways, print news followed suit: from USA TODAY's Technicolor TV-screen front page to the expanding waistlines of even the most serious newspapers' lifestyle sections.
Certainly, "serious" news coverage still exists in print, on TV, and online, but this coverage is considered niche; it is not a realistic reflection of the way in which most people view social and political systems and the news and events that shape them. Print news followed television's lead as it suppressed the content of ideas to accommodate the requirements and values of show business. I may be stretching Postman's ideas here, but he emphasizes that the "most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called television." TV news became a one-way-street, dead-ending discourse not only in its narrow coverage, but in the very nature of broadcasting information.
However, the web is not a passive one-way medium. Yes, it is dominated by searchers and lurkers, but a generation of users is coming up steeped in a web-based communal culture. One in which any idea is ripe for comments, linking, co-opting and incorporating, mashing up, and remixing. The subtitle to Postman's book is Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. When I consider the emerging shape of information and idea exchange, I think we might consider our work Public Discourse in the Age of Share Business.
Not only are today's information consumers not content to wait for news to be delivered-instead of opting to search it out or have it piped into inboxes, personalized portals, or directly into workflow-they expect to be part of its creation. While the phrase "join the conversation" already seems dated, I believe that the rise of social media has transformed the expectation of the content consumer. We have an opportunity to meet it by opening up communication mechanisms via sharing, linking, commenting, contributing, and more. We also have an opportunity to reshape the value of news by listening and responding. Building upon Marshall McLuhan's work, Postman says, "Each medium, like language itself makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility."
I look forward to the new shape of discourse: to rebuilding the lines of communication, and upon these lines rewriting the rules of content creation so that news will regain its rightful place as a creation of the people to inform the people.