The Bias of Communication

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Nietzsche once wrote that “our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts” in reference to his switch from a pen to the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter. He was responding in a letter to his friend Peter Gast, who had noted the change in writing style. Friedrich Kittler describes this as a change from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” Nietzsche was in a unique position for making this reflection on how writing instruments contribute to our thoughts, as he was perhaps the first philosopher to make such a transition.

For the curious, the switch was made in 1882, after The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Untimely Meditations (1874), but before his arguably more influential Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Will to Power (1889).

In The Bias of Communication, Harold Innis makes this connection more apparent throughout a wider range of communication media. Nietzsche and Plato have both argued that the advent of writing – and the relatively widespread reading that follows from it – ultimately destroy the ability to think. It also increased the interest in the codification of laws, which led to the development of bureaucracy. However, the method of writing also makes an important difference:

“Papyrus was produced in a restricted area and met the demands of a centralized administration whereas parchment as the product of an agricultural economy was suited to a decentralized system.”

The production of paper caused a commercial revolution that weakened central authorities such as monasteries and helped drive an interest in learning, first through books and then through shorter newspaper and pamphlet publications.

In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent of television as a medium further degraded the ability to think:

“Whenever [written] language is the principal medium of communication … 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 thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.”

And it gets worse. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet is making it more difficult for us to engage with complex writing. In an article that was a precursor to his book, he wrote:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Although I do agree with many of the individual arguments (as I’ve written), overall I’m not sure I’m convinced. At every stage from the spoken word to writing to TV to the Internet, we have claims being made that these media make us less able to think clearly. And yet, our society continues to progress in amazing ways.

So what gives?

In  Communication and Culture, James Carey argues that the decentralization of communication that comes with these forms of advanced technology has adverse and seemingly contradictory effects:

“More people spend more time dependent on the journalist, the publisher, the program director… People become ‘consumers’ of of communication as they become consumers of everything else, and as consumers they stand dependent on centralized sources of supply.

…We reach a stage under the impulse of advanced communication at which there is simultaneously advancing knowledge and declining knowing. We keep waiting to be informed, to be educated, but lose the capacity to produce knowledge for ourselves in decentralized communities of learning.”

Innis and Carey both make a call to return to the local and oral traditions that Plato praised.

However, Innis also points out that each form of communication has an inherent bias on what it emphasizes. The thinking isn’t necessarily worse, but it is different. And this lines up quite well with Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted idea that the medium is the message, in his book Understanding Media:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

It’s easy to criticize different, but it may be even more important to learn from it. What can we take away from each medium? What does each do best that we can learn from and improve upon? In my opinion, the interesting thing is that we don’t simply discard past media. We have written communication, we have television, we have the Internet – they all coexist. Of course, if we argue that one is better than all of the others, we’re showing our bias – we’re showing what we think ought to be emphasized.

Perhaps we would fair better if we learned from each medium and focused on that bias – that message that is the medium. How can we utilize each of these tools to our advantage in our society? It’s not an all or nothing battle.

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