Understanding Donald Trump: how technological mediation leads to actual surreality
Neil Postman is, in my estimation, one of the most important writers whose work needs to be more actively read, studied, and taught than it is currently. While his work is not obscure, and has had some influence, I open this short essay by asserting its significance because Postman has articulated and explained the fundamental necessity of deconstructing, understanding, and moderating the influence and effects of our media on ourselves (and by extension our culture, our collective behavior and decisions) better and more accessibly than any other writer I've found.
Also, for me, through much of his work as a whole Postman implicitly draws out the evolution of a primary thesis of communication studies--the medium is the message--into our growth and experience of hyperreality (which is vastly accelerated by the internet). I think that this process has continued, and that--because our experience of hyperreality is so pervasive and so convincing--we are now actively trying to make reality match our own subjective notions of what it should be, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump as PEOTUS is as clear an example of this large-scale reification of hyperreality as I've seen.
Look: I know that those previous two sentences are maybe not the clearest I've ever written, and that this can seem dense and obscure and not really worth thinking about too much. But, and I urge you to find me persuasive on this, it really is important and actually not too complicated, if you can stay in a conceptual space for a bit. I think it's urgent that we see and understand this set of phenomena we're currently experiencing, to help explain a world where "President Trump" is not a joke in a Simpsons episode from 2000, and to inform how we react and act going forward.
II. Two primary parts to consider
We'll draw this out more thoroughly in a series of podcast episodes we're working on, but for now here is the short version to help explain this thing that appears super esoteric but is in fact ordinary, ubiquitous, affecting us all, and urgently important to see and understand. (If we don't, we're going to continue messing with the world as if there are no consequences.)
- Your consciousness, as we perceive it to be individually, is a subjective creation by your organism that is hugely limited, imperfect, and highly vulnerable to influence or manipulation.
While there is vastly more to say and reference about this, a basic understanding of how our sense of reality is created is essential for all this to make sense. The ways that our perceptions are manifest, mediated internally, and influenced by how we think and feel are amazing--and quite vulnerable to manipulation, because a human being, as an embodied, temporal creature, can never know an objective reality.
The very talented, smart, and hyper-verbal rapper Michael "Eyedea" Larsen expressed this quite pithily in his track "...Powdered Water Too (Part 1)," using the paradox of powdered water to illustrate the confusing self-referentiality one encounters when considering the nature and limits of one's own perceptual reality. His explanation is a pretty decent short-cut to understand the immediate context for my larger point, detailed below. That context is your own consciousness, the nature of which is indirect, mediated, symbolic, inferred, and so on, and which leaves us vulnerable to the influence and manipulations of our media environment. As Larsen says (click the title to listen to this excerpt as you read along):
Powdered Water Too (Part 1) - excerpt
If I grew up in a cubicle, the walls limit my universe;
I have no knowledge of the entirety like the outsiders do.
If you follow what I say, and can swallow the powdered water,
close your eyes and open your minds, this one's for you:
...and the brain equals a cubicle, we'll never think outside it,
now inside, wanna try to tie a diagram to modify them.
I'm a man who’s a hybrid of a body of a pirate,
of a soul that can fly without control;
Realizing the brain takes in six billion signals per second,
most of which are hidden and not given to the senses;
we're limited to a few futile primitive tools of perception,
livin' in a universal pool of firsthand deception.
The mind's job is to receive the signals
and block out the ones that don't coincide with imprinted symbols.
That way, the information you obtained is recognized,
reality is thinkable; incomparable to space and time.
It makes a map of the territory. That gives us
the topic of the Copenhagen interpretation of modern quantum
physics, which states we don't know the meal;
we only know the menu that our brain tells us is real.
We don't know the rules of our heads.
From inside these cubicles, we can't see the truth.
No one really knows exactly what happens when we think,
therefore we can never really ever know anything....
- Our perceptual reality, our consciousness, is profoundly influenced by the means and modes our organism uses to gain information from the world. Those means and modes, or mediums (media), have vastly increased in sophistication, very rapidly. Their effects have accelerated and mutated, as well.
- The medium is the message means that the form of any medium embeds itself in any message it conveys.
- To send a message to someone, you must export that information somehow.
- To export information, it must use a medium, some way of encoding, transmitting, receiving, decoding, and understanding that information, e.g., language, television, computers.
- A medium affects any message sent through it, and any person who uses it, more fundamentally than the messages themselves, by shaping our own perceptions, ways of thinking, expectations, and more.
- So the medium itself, and how it affects us, is more important to consider and understand than any specific messages that medium is used to convey.
- Hyperreality describes what happens when the media that we use presents reality so effectively, and we use that media so constantly, that the ability of our consciousness to distinguish between 'reality as we experience it directly' and 'reality as presented, filtered, or simulated by our media' is considerably blurred and diminished. This goes beyond the existential "what is real?" of, e.g., The Matrix, and speaks to much more subtle manifestations like echo chambers, epistemic closure, false-consensus effect, and--most worrisome lately--truthiness. These behaviors, and many more, are evidence that we've been experiencing states of hyperreality for some time. What's changed lately is that we spend so much time experiencing different states and modes of hyperreality, that the difference between those and consensus, objective reality is less clear to our brains, our consciousness.
- Hypernormalization, a process of accepting the fake as real is the result; in other words, not only have we retreated into whatever conceptual, social, emotional, political world we most prefer, we are now trying to make the actual world--the one with non-negotiable stuff like gravity and other people--be like the one in our imaginations.
- The medium is the message means that the form of any medium embeds itself in any message it conveys.
Think about it: how much of your typical day is spent unmediated, having experiences and interactions with other people with no tool, device, gadget, or other implement in between you? How much of the world, of other human beings, have you experienced or learned directly, compared to how much you have experienced or learned through some mediation (books, movies, TV, internet)? How many of your opinions about the world, or even the people around you, are built upon the opinions and stories of others who told you about them? You are profoundly affected by the media you use.
III. So this is what, it seems to me, is happening
- We are now about three generations into technologically sophisticated media immersion, and all that has come with it.
- This has shaped our perceptions, opinions, thoughts, knowledge, understanding of ourselves and the world fundamentally, and is largely unexamined and unconsidered.
- It's really important to consider, because immersion in mediated reality creates, in the minds of users/receivers, a hyperreality, where the distinction between what is real (known or experienced directly) and what is unreal (known or experienced by mediation) is blurred, porous, compromised, and/or confused.
- Our media are now, and have been for some time, technologically sophisticated enough, and our immersion through continuous engagement with them so prevalent, that a process of hypernormalization is occurring, where we want our mediated, imaginary world to supplant the real, actual world we must share--and many of us are working to make that happen, regardless of (often in defiance of) any negative consequences.
This big-picture framing is something that I've been trying to articulate for a long time, from when I first wrote the precepts and created this website way back in 2005, but it's hard to talk about because it's our water. It's fundamental to the whole Loose Filter concept, as those precepts elucidate, and it also describes a behavioral, cultural process that produces seemingly bizarre outcomes like President-Elect Trump. As mentioned, we're working on a more detailed, thorough look at this phenomenon (with examples!) for the podcast, and aim to post those episodes soon. We're hoping that this short essay, in framing and outlining what we'll be talking about, will provoke some thinking along these lines on your part.
IV. A bit of further reading
- Neil Postman, Informing Ourselves to Death, a short essay explaining that technological change has inherently mixed effect:
A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.
The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion.
Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. [...] Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.
- Postman, The Educationist as Painkiller, in which he posits a very different, and perhaps now urgently important, conception of the job of teachers, which could provide the basis of a practical response to our conditioning toward hypernormalizing behaviors:
To put it plainly, we know next to nothing about intelligence, in the same sense that medical doctors know next to nothing about health. That is why doctors do not concern themselves with health, and give all their attention to relieving us of sickness. Indeed, their definition of health is the absence of sickness. [...] By concentrating on the elimination of sickness, doctors give a focus to their objectives and procedures that teachers have not been able to match.
His suggestion is a radical reframing that offers much food for thought:
This, then, is the strategy I propose for educationists—that we abandon our vague, seemingly arrogant, and ultimately futile attempts to make children intelligent, and concentrate our attention on helping them avoid being stupid.
Postman argues that there are three conclusions about stupidity that “all writers on the subject have reached,” and whose causes you may be able guess by now:
The first is that everyone practices stupidity, including those who write about it; none of us is ever free of it, and we are most seriously endangered when we think we are safe.
The second conclusion is that stupidity is reducible. [...] Stupidity is a form of behavior. It is not something we have; it is something we do.
The third conclusion is that stupidity [...] is chiefly embodied in talk. It is true enough that our ways of talking are controlled by the ways we manage our minds, and no one is quite sure what “mind” is. But we are sure that the main expression of mind is sentences. When we are thinking, we are mostly arranging sentences in our heads. When we are thinking stupidly, we are arranging stupid sentences. Even when we do a nonverbal stupid thing, we have preceded the action by talking to ourselves in such a way as to make us think the act is reasonable. The word, in a word, brings forth the act.
- In This Is Water, David Foster Wallace beautifully and succinctly expresses the difficulty of understanding the nature and limits of your subjective, perceived reality, and how important it is to learn to learn to influence what you value, and how:
“Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
He emphasizes that the process of education, of teaching and learning, is mainly to help each of us to see the water we swim in, to keep seeing it, and what to do about it:
And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.
Until the podcast episodes are posted, I'll leave the last word to Postman:
Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." Here is what Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." And here is what Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And here is what the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you, if I had the time (although you all know it well enough), what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: there is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.
Even the humblest cartoon character knows this: "We have met the enemy," Pogo said, "and he is us."