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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 2/18/19

Worshipping the Electronic Image

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Postman, in his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," writes that after the development of the telegraph, "News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch." Arguing that the 19th-century invention is the basis for communication in the digital age, he says, "Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each 'headline' stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. 'Knowing' the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative."

Those who seek to communicate outside of digital structures to question or challenge the dominant narrative, to deal in ambiguity and nuance, to have discussions rooted in verifiable fact and historical context, are becoming incomprehensible to most of modern society. As soon as they employ a language that is not grounded in the dominant cliche's and stereotypes, they are not understood. Television, computers and smartphones have addicted a generation and conditioned it to talk and think in the irrational, incoherent baby talk it is fed day after day. This cultural, historical, economic and social illiteracy delights the ruling elites who design, manage and profit from these sophisticated systems of social control. Armed with our personal data and with knowledge of our proclivities, habits and desires, they adeptly manipulate us as consumers and citizens to accelerate their amassing of wealth and consolidation of power.

"The only people who grasp the distinction between reality and appearance, who grasp the laws of conduct and society, are the ruling groups and those who do their bidding: scientific, technical elites who elucidate the laws of behavior and the function of society so that people might be more effectively, albeit unconsciously, governed," Carey writes in "Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society."

Daniel Boorstin in "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Reality in America" argues that the fabricated, the inauthentic and the theatrical have now displaced the natural, the genuine and the spontaneous. Reality has become stagecraft. We live in a world, he writes, "where fantasy is more real than reality." He warns:

"We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic,' that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience."

Trump is a product of this cultural decay, not an aberration. The way he speaks, acts and thinks is the way many Americans speak, act and think. He will one day disappear, but the cultural degeneracy that produced him will remain. Academic institutions, which should be the repositories of culture and literacy, are transforming themselves, often with corporate money, into adjuncts of the digital age, expanding departments that deal with technology, engineering and computer sciencethe largest major at universities such as Princeton and Harvard -- while diminishing the disciplines that deal with art, philosophy, ethics, history and politics. These disciplines, rooted in print, are the only antidotes to cultural death.

Intellectual historian Perry Miller in his essay "The Duty of Mind in a Civilization of Machines" calls us to build counterweights to communication technology in order "to resist the paralyzing effects upon the intellect of the looming nihilism" that defines the era. In short, the more we turn off our screens and return to the world of print, the more we seek out the transformative power of art and culture, the more we re-establish genuine relationships, conducted face-to-face rather than through a screen, the more we use knowledge to understand and put the world around us in context, the more we will be able to protect ourselves from the digital dystopia.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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