Gossiping Ourselves to Death

I recently read Neil Postman's excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman offers a critique of the corrosive effect of television on American discourse, education, and culture. Television is of course the dominant media of the 20th century, and as Postman describes it, "The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether." Anything presented on television is evaluated first by its potential to entertain, its capacity to inform or enlightened is nearly irrelevant. When entertainment become the central virtue, politics becomes talking heads shouting at each other, rather than a considered debate over the issues and merits of policy. Religion is reduced to a public spectacle, as in Evangelical mega-churches, without any spiritual or moral dimensions. Sesame Street and its ilk turn students away from any knowledge that does not grip their sense of fun, to the detriment of higher learning.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is one hell of a diatribe, its only flaw is that it was published in 1985, and so does not cover the defining communication medium of the 21st century, the internet. What kind of results to we see extending Postman's methodology to computers?

The technology of the internet is very good at two things, interpersonal communication (email, IM, forums), and personal publishing (blogs, Facebook, Youtube). The best thing that can happen to something on the web is that it goes viral, that people feel compelled to send it on to all their friends. Intrapersonal communication, a need to forward the best stuff, and a forum for public display; strip out the jargon and what you have is old fashioned gossip.

Email and IMs make gossip faster and easier, but don't alter the fundamental nature of gossiping. On the other hand, the whole point of Facebook is to carry out the social functions of gossip without any human intermediation whatsoever. We stay in touch with our friends, find out how their lives and relationships are going, check out their favorite bands and TV shows, and all from the comfort of our home. Moreover, when we use Facebook, we willfully invite other people to gossip about us, we become exhibitionists. In the future, even introverted people will need to maintain some kind of public presence.

What does gossip imply for society and politics? The more salacious a piece of gossip is, the more engaging it is. Instead of being entertained, we are disgusted and titillated, the truth of a rumor is basically irrelevant, and fact-checking often strengthens misinformed beliefs. The damage to public discourse is obvious. Gossip has always played a role in politics, but when it plays the preeminent role, honest evaluation of our leaders, their beliefs, and executive ability become impossible. Politics becomes little more than innuendo, name-calling, and black propaganda.

I don't have an easy antidote. We never came up with one for television, and a glance at the cable channels will show you it's worst than ever before (see the Ghosts-and-Loggers, I mean History Channel.) On an individual level, we can steel ourselves against internet rumor, but that's just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. I think rumor is embedded in the technological architecture of the current generation of internet technologies. We need a new communication medium that penalized those who spread rumors.


  1. oh, also

    its not gossip ! Darbnet is totally legitimate, thoughtful content ! WeAlone are not just a collective narcissism complex ! Meaningful content cant be found on Digg ! Google reader isn't sucking days of my life into oblivion !

    but the internet is good things

    google scholar

    …to name three

  2. Ah, wikipedia. I'm glad you mentioned wikipedia!

    Wikipedia is nothing but the codification and the enshrinement of gossip. Words coalesce out of thin air, provided by millions of psuedo-anonymous authors. Fact is decided by whoever gets there last, or in the case of contentious arguments, some kind of arcane "consensus" hammered out behind the scenes on Talk pages by the wiki-elite. I agree it works, but it works by gossip, by the continuous scavenging of facts, and not by scholarship.

  3. I'm glad you're not my political opponent, with rhetorical land mines such as these.

    I'm sure the fact that people want things for free plays into this.