[This is the second part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here.]
Let’s look at the epistemology of television. The word epistemology is a fancy word that describes the ways by which knowledge claims are tested for their veracity. If I tell you that twice two is four, then there is general agreement concerning the epistemic value of this statement as being true. Epistemology also involves claims about the world, about culture, politics, economics, domestic and foreign affairs, tragedies, etc. Prior to television, people listened to the radio and read newspapers. The written word, in particular, shaped our understanding of the world. The written text followed a logical and coherent sequence of facts and ideas. The reader was not a passive spectator, but an actively engaged participant in a conversation with the author. The printed word was governed by rigorous rules. It contained facts and claims that were checked for accuracy. The very language used was meticulously crafted and presented with a certain literary style that was aesthetically pleasing. The metaphor reigned supreme and meaning was embedded in the interstitial space between words.
Let’s assume that only 10% of what was printed in the past five hundred years was of a serious nature. That 10% was sufficient to design and build the modern mind.
To illustrate the power of the printed word and the oratory derived from the power of texts, let’s look at the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. The incumbent United States Senator from Illinois was Stephen A. Douglas and the challenger was Abraham Lincoln. After becoming a Whig Party leader, an Illinois state legislator, and Congressman, Lincoln left politics and returned to practicing law. He would return to public life in 1854, when he became the leader of the new Republican Party. Although he lost the election to Douglas, he would go on to win the presidency in 1860. Historians often point to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates as some of the most profound and enduring oratory in American history. The issues discussed were critical to the geography of the nation, as well as the moral direction of a society engaged in slavery. The seventh and final debate on October 15, 1858, took place in Alton, Illinois. It was a cloudy day and, despite the fact people were charged only a dollar for a roundtrip ticket to ride a steamboat from neighboring St. Louis, only 5000 people attended.
Lincoln spoke first and framed the moral issue of the day:
“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”[i]
Here are the concluding remarks from Mr. Douglas:
“My friends, if, as I have said before, we will only live up to this great fundamental principle, there will be peace between the North and the South. Mr. Lincoln admits that, under the Constitution, on all domestic questions, except slavery, we ought not to interfere with the people of each State. What right have we to interfere with slavery any more than we have to interfere with any other question? He says that this slavery question is now the bone of contention. Why? Simply because agitators have combined in all the Free States to make war upon it.”[ii]
It is important to remember that these debates went on for at least three hours. By our own standard today, the attention span of the audience, as well as their capacity to comprehend the oratorical density of morally tinged ideas was remarkable. While the content of Mr. Douglas and Mr. Lincoln’s arguments is important, it is the textual rigor that is of importance in the context of how political discourse is carried out today. Neil Postman referred to the eloquence of the written word during the mid-nineteenth century as the typographic mind. It is worth quoting Postman here:
“One must begin, I think, by pointing to the obvious fact that the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. This may sound odd, but since I shall be arguing soon enough that much of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional content, I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication — especially language controlled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thoughts.”[iii]
Knowledge in general, and pubic knowledge in particular, was shaped by the printed word. That is to say, words on a page gave rise to mental states that can be identified as knowledge. Knowledge itself; how it is constituted and experienced by us, is derived from the printed word. I am in no way suggesting that the history of the printed word has always been free of the trivial and ridiculous. In fact, one can make the case that since the introduction of the printing press, we have seen a vast ocean of mediocre and sub-mediocre ideas that were not worth the page they were printed on. Let’s assume that only 10% of what was printed in the past five hundred years was of a serious nature. That 10% was sufficient to design and build the modern mind. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment; the scientific revolution to the industrial revolution; the written word engaged us, stimulated our creativity, unleashed our imagination, educated us, made us feel something, and generally immersed us in the shared global conversation about the human condition. Consider that the intellectual giants since the printing press transmitted their ideas on a simple piece of paper.
Consider that the intellectual giants since the printing press transmitted their ideas on a simple piece of paper.
The list of writers, philosophers, poets, and scientists from the Renaissance to the late twentieth-century who changed our understanding of the world, and ourselves, is breathtaking: William Shakespeare, Rene Descartes, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, David Hume, Charles Dickens, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Thomas Paine, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Darwin, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Henrik Ibsen, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Butler Yeats, Franz Kafka, Dante Alighieri, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, T.S. Elliot, etc. While this list seems long, it only covers a fraction of those who expanded our understanding and awareness of everything from the cosmos to the inner workings of our mind.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, our collective technical genius has enabled us to construct the perfect digital cave.
The digital age today suffers from two broadly defined epistemological quandaries. The structure of the digital world is built on a foundation of information and visual images. Printed books are nothing but ornaments on a shelf, admired for their nostalgic and aesthetic reminders of a past that is quickly fading from memory. Knowledge today is no longer derived from the densely textured layers of ideas, rather it is the byproduct of fractured and disjointed bits of information that appear on our screens. The articles we read online are filled with distractions, such as embedded advertisements, hyperlinks, and tweets. Think of the last article you read online: how many distractions did you have to navigate before you gave up and decided to find something else to read? Let’s suppose you downloaded an e-book to read. As you read, you realize that you are becoming agitated and neurotically distracted. Your limited attention span means that you can’t read for more than a few minutes before you decide to multi-task. You may create a split-screen on your device, with the e-book on the left side and a news, sports, or entertainment website on the right side.
I’ve said in a previous chapter that we consume information, which requires some elaboration. The enormity of information forces us to engage in skimming, where we simply read the headlines or, if we are bold enough, read the opening paragraph. Some of us might skim the entire article. Regardless of how much we consume any given packet of information, knowledge seems to be removed from our voracious appetite for more. As a state of mind, knowledge must be cultivated, reflective, contemplative, and navigated. Knowledge is digestive in the sense that it requires time to absorb the nuanced layers that give it shape and form. Information requires frenetic energy, surface awareness, bullet points, distractions, distortion, fracturing, and a disjointed flow of ideas. It is this kinetic flow of information that prevents us from forming a coherent thought. Once we surrender our mental faculty to the pursuit of acquiring information, we surrender an aspect of our identity. The type of information we consume is often restricted to sensationalized news, mind-numbing popular culture, Twitter rants by intellectually challenged individuals who believe their mundane and inane musings on life are somehow valuable enough to share, as well as an endless list of other mind-numbing asides and distractions that keep us perpetually occupied.
Social media has become nothing more than dangerous echoes from a darkened digital cave.
Those who aspire for something more elevated are often labeled as “out of touch,” and forced to exist on the margins of society. One might argue, quite effectively I might add, that from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century, we succeeded in moving beyond the darkness of Plato’s cave. The tragic irony, of course, is that at the turn of the twenty-first century, our collective technical genius has enabled us to construct the perfect digital cave. Just as the dark cavernous shadows kept Plato’s cave dwellers in a state of perpetual ignorance, so too does the digital cave keep us in a state of technological euphoria. Our digital shadows are far more sophisticated, nevertheless, they are shadows that dazzle us, entertain us, deceive us, and distract us. The promise of social media connecting us turned out to be nothing but pathological narcissism, fabrications, unimaginable cruelties, political forums for Orwellian doublespeak, epistemic warehouses filled with disinformation, and an enveloping sense of intellectual exhaustion. Social media has become nothing more than dangerous echoes from a darkened digital cave.
Rather than being chained by our necks and feet, we are today chained by a seemingly omnipotent, God-like virtual cave that has a total and absolute hold on our collective imagination. Who needs to bother leaving this comfortable cave if everything we can possibly want or need is available to us inside this miracle of human ingenuity? The digital cave has given rise to the multitasking culture. The one flaw Plato’s cave had was its passive nature. The digital cave dwellers of today can actively manipulate the shadows on their screens. We are, of course, more enlightened precisely because we can manipulate the shadows. We feel a powerful sense of control in deciding what to watch, when to watch, and where to watch. As I’ve said earlier, we can multi-task by watching multiple screens at the same time. Some might argue that perhaps this is true when it comes to popular culture, but not in other areas of our lives. Here is what this argument is missing: every other area of human activity has now been transferred to our virtual cave.
The one flaw Plato’s cave had was its passive nature. The digital cave dwellers of today can actively manipulate the shadows on their screens.
From politics to education, the so-called serious side of our culture is now inside our cave culture. The parameters of political discourse have been obliterated. My critique here is not going to embrace one ideological persuasion over another. Both the left and the right are guilty of intellectual gross negligence. The left has become intolerant of anything and anyone who might disagree. Liberal philosophy has been reduced to talking points and cruel tweets that mock millions of Americans who might disagree with leftist ideals. Many Americans, who embrace their religious convictions with pride, feel they are looked down upon, condescended to, mocked, and reduced to an irrelevant afterthought. On the other hand, those on the right, in their single-minded quest to undermine the message and influence of what they perceive as the liberal media, engage in hyperbole. In other words, reality becomes so warped by those on the right that the truth value of what they say is sacrificed for the sake of ideological and cultural warfare that must be won at any cost.
We have a president who has tweeted thousands of times over the past several years. His tweets epitomize his lack of any intellectual substance whatsoever. His tweets both project and amplify the mental and emotional states of a man who is a prevaricator, provocateur, mentally unstable, morally corrupt, and naïve. Trump’s tweets reflect someone who lacks conviction; who is selfish, an opportunist, intellectually challenged, lacks any of the qualities necessary for leadership, misogynistic, racist, and wholly removed from the realities and actualities of those whom he represents. He co-opts people who will go along with his sham of a presidency. His genius was to pull the wool over people’s eyes by making them feel he speaks for them. When you transfer democracy to Plato’s cave, you have, in effect, succeeded in undermining the very ideals that thousands have died to protect. The shadows on our screens are insidious in the sense that we faithfully follow them. The shadows have reduced many of us to conspiratorial zombies who mindlessly agree with those who have nothing better to do than fabricate a web of lies; who make the most noise; who bully the rest of us into submission; who tell us that facts are no longer facts; who engage in tantrums when challenged.
We have become delusional types who believe that our fancy gadgets are making us more enlightened.
We like to delude ourselves into believing that we have moved beyond the darkness of Plato’s cave, but the tragic nature of our lives is that we have gone deeper into the darkness of the cave. To make matters worse, we are not aware of how far we’ve fallen into the darkness. One might argue that our educational system is far more enlightened than the darkness of past generations. I left education for the end of this article because the educated leaders among us were supposed to warn us of the precipitous fall. Our educational system has fallen prey to the idea that information is an enlightening agent. There was a time when education involved the critical engagement of ideas. Alas, today education has been reduced to power points and perfunctory bullet points. Online education is now an input/output proposition. Students are asked to consume information and regurgitate it back so that an algorithm can grade our ability to memorize trivial facts. If students are asked to write papers, they will rely on the internet by cutting and pasting various quotes. Once knowledge is reduced to information, our capacity for clear and cogent ideas diminishes. Plato’s shadows are with us, mocking our false sophistication. Instead of acknowledging our cultural shortcomings vis-à-vis past generations, we celebrate our achievements and distorted view of progress. We have become delusional types who believe that our fancy gadgets are making us more enlightened, whereas we are nothing more than frightened narcissists who enjoy playing with our shiny little toys.
[This is the second part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the first part here.]
[i] The Lincoln Douglas Debates of 1858. (2015). National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate7.htm.
[iii] Postman, N. (2005). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York. Penguin Books; Anniversary Edition. P. 38–39.