"The Digital Opiate"

"The Digital Opiate"
by The Zman

"Imagine a science fiction scenario in which you and your crew discover a planet inhabited by intelligent beings that possess no written or spoken language. This strange species communicates entirely with facial movements, eye contact, and other non-verbal gestures. Perhaps in addition to an astonishingly complex set of facial muscles, they have additional limbs used for signaling complex ideas. Whatever sounds they make are more like mood music than spoken language.

It is a crazy image, but it is a useful way of thinking about language. While it is possible such a communication could work, the one obvious problem is that initially all knowledge would have to be communicated in person. If you wanted to pass on information to the guy in the next village, you would either have to go to his village or have someone do it for you. It would also mean information could die with the holder, so the culture would need lots of redundancy to retain its knowledge.

Most likely, such a communication system would be so costly, whole categories of information would be eliminated. History would have to be truncated. Imagine the effort required to pantomime the history of the Peloponnesian War. Communicating advanced math would be impossible. Imagine describing a Lorentzian manifold with hand gestures and facial movements. Even a highly advanced visual communication system would rule out large swaths of information.

It’s not just that the categories would be constrained. The concept of history, for example, may not exist at all. If it did, it would be highly personalized, since all communication would be personal. Without a writing system or some other way to record information that is independent of the sender, the concept of a fact-based history would be improbable. This species could conceive of the past, but only in the most personal sense of it and as related to the present.

There would be something else about such a communication system. Because the lack of efficiency, time would have to be compressed. That is, the highest priority would be on the events of the present time, then those in the very near future and then the immediate past. The further events, ideas or concepts got from the present in either direction, the less important they would be to the society. The species with only a visual communication system would live almost entirely in the moment.

In the 1984 book, "Amusing Ourselves To Death", Neil Postman argued that a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. The written word requires the intellectual involvement of the reader. The information presented can be tested and contemplated as it is consumed. Oral communication is more immediate, as the listener cannot playback what was just said, unless it is recorded. Video is the most superficial, as the viewer is a passive participant.

The thesis was that the superficial nature of video communication was removing facts and reason from public discourse and replacing them with emotion. People will take one side or another of an issue, because they favor the people making the argument, not because they think about the facts. Politics ceases to be about facts and arguments and becomes a sales pitch, like an ad for a product. No one thinks about the claims made in the presentation, just how they feel about the presenter.

Postman was writing before the internet. He could not contemplate how that would change public communication. The internet has immediacy. In addition to the superficiality of visual communication, it now comes as a steady stream through the wide array of screens in our lives. Even if you are not on social media, you will still absorb a steady stream of small bits of information. These are intended to elicit an emotional response regarding some pubic issue.

For older people, the legacy mediums still play a large role. Old people still read physical newspapers. Radio talk shows and television still have an audience, but the audience is generally those who came of age before the internet. Old people are on-line, but they experience it as a digital form of the legacy media. At the other end of the age curve, kids get all of the information on-line. Social media, YouTube and live streams are their exclusive sources of information.

Think about the last two months of virus panic. First the stream was intended to frighten everyone with images of overwhelmed hospitals and morgues. The factual content of the presentation was nonsensical. We did not see actual hospitals or people staggering around suffering from the virus. Instead it was models and people pitching the panic, like salesman in an infomercial. Postman’s framing of television news as infotainment has now been supercharged in the internet age.

We have moved beyond the three mediums of written, oral and visual, by adding the element of time. The rapid stream of information coming to us in mostly visual formats, or at least as superficial as the visual, amplifies the emotional aspect that was always central to visual presentations. People are bombarded with inputs that are evaluated in the moment and the appropriate emotion is generated. It is why people get so angry at contradiction on-line. That’s the point of the experience.

Our modern media environment is now something like “the feelies” in Huxley’s "Brave New World." This was a popular form of entertainment that combined the senses of smell and touch in a movie format. The “movie” lacks the normal content of a movie, but instead stimulates the viewer into certain emotional states. The responses created in the viewer, combine with images, reinforce the social order. It is a form of propaganda that circumvents the rational mind and appeals to the emotions.

The live stream phenomenon is similar. These are often ad hoc, with the streamer starting his stream when the spirit moves. Some are more regimented in their schedule, but they rarely start on time and they go as long as they like. The people tuning in are not looking for facts and reasoned arguments. Instead they want reassurance and confirmation. These streams have communities that exist around the live streamer. It’s virtual information and a virtual community.

This brings us back to that civilization of aliens. They would inevitably be trapped in the present, because of the limitations of their communications medium. Their information would also be highly personal, as there would be no way to communicate without the idiosyncrasies of the sender getting tangled in the message. Part of the information the receiver would get is the particulars of the sender. Information could no longer stand outside the person. It would be defined by the sender and receiver.

We are seeing this today. Live streamers are making a living by talking and playing games as a type of performance. Their community sends them money in order to get mentioned or have their comment mentioned. In fact, the community becomes a part of the performance, a sort of codependency. The streamer interacts with the community in order to move the show along, but the community interacts with the streamer in order to tailor the experience to their desires in the moment.

Of course, it also means our public discourse must be even more shallow and superficial than what existed in the peak of the television era. It also must be even more intensely present tense. The old written information stream was an interconnected collection of facts and logic. The new information stream is a constant series of highly personalized, but disconnected bits of data intended to elicit an emotion. The digital opiate keeps the sender and receiver in a constant present."