The End of Narrative, Meaning

We are driven to fill our lives with the quest to “access” information. For what purpose or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented. The world has never before been confronted with information glut and has hardly had time to reflect on its consequences.

~ Neil Postman, Technopoly, 1992

There is certainly a freedom associated with the collapse of narrative, but it is very easily surrendered to the basest forms of spectacle and abuse. Why bother making a television show at all when kids are more likely to watch a one-minute Jackass clip on YouTube of a young man being subjected to the “fart mask”?

~ Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock, 2013

The term ‘postmodern’ was introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. For Lyotard, the dividing line between modernity and post-modernity is the declining importance of the Big Narratives that guide societies and our individual lives. Grand narratives like religions, the Enlightenment, Humanism, Marxism, Capitalism, Jeffersonian democracy, patriotism, and so on. Lyotard celebrates the loss of these grand narratives; for they create and reinforce oppressive power structures. We should replace Big Narratives, he argues, with “petite narratives” that lift the local and individual over the universal and collective.

Lyotard was initially commissioned to explore the influence of new technologies on scientific research. The Canadian government thought he would make a good tech pundit. Instead, he used the opportunity to argue that new communication technologies challenge the control of information, which is necessary to maintain Big Narratives. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, so too does the loss of shared meaning.

The American Technopoly

In 1991, twelve years after the release of The Postmodern Condition, media theorist Neil Postman published Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. It argues that America had once again found a Big Narrative around which to organized society, and that Big Narrative is technology itself. For Postman, technology became the all-encompassing worldview — what he calls the “technopoly” — where we became more concerned with the forward march of innovation than the advancement of morality. “It is a world in which the idea of human progress has been replaced by the idea of technological progress,” he writes.

Why did the Technopoly first emerge in the United States and why has it continued to flourish there more than any other country? Postman puts forth three arguments, beginning with character. He quotes de Tocqueville who wrote in the early 1800s that, in the American’s mind, “the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement.” It makes sense that a young country of immigrants is drawn toward change and novelty. The nineteenth century industrialists were able to take advantage of Americans’ distrust of culture to exploit the economic possibilities of new technologies faster than ever before. While other countries may have contemplated the negative consequences of new technologies like the railway or automobile, there was little resistance in the United States. In China, for example, the emperor forbade the construction of railways, wary that they would help the foreigners steal natural resources, as had happened in India. In Russia, 15 years prior to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Minister of Finance argued to the Tsar that railroads “encouraged frequent purposeless travel, thus fostering the restless spirit of our age.” In America there was little protest of the rapid expansion of railways; the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.

By the 20th century, America was fully convinced that technology was superior to culture. Postman writes: “To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative. To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling.”

It is astonishing to read Technopoly more than 20 years after it was published. It’s not that the arguments continue to resonate today; they have, in fact, become more relevant than Postman could have anticipated. Writing when technology critic Evgeny Morozov was just eight years old(!), Postman warned of what Morozov later popularized as “solutionism:” In the grand narrative of technology, we celebrate solutions more than we attempt to understand the problems they allegedly address.

For contemporary readers, Technopoly offers a framework to examine the relationship between information glut and the emergence of new gatekeeping institutions.

Schools as Gatekeepers

In 1480, there were thirty-four schools in all of England. By 1660, when Europe was flooded by new books and pamphlets, there were 444, one school for every twelve square miles. Postman argues that the rapid growth of the common school “was a necessary response to the anxieties and confusion aroused by information on the loose.” The birth of the curriculum was a “logical step toward organizing, limiting, and discriminating among available sources of information.” Schools were, in Postman’s view, “structures for legitimizing some parts of the flow of information and discrediting other parts.”

Prior to the invention of movable type in 1436, the Catholic Church was Europe’s most important editorial gatekeeper. Then, Martin Luther took advantage of the printing press to distribute his Ninety-Five Theses, challenging the Vatican’s information monopoly. But Luther was hardly alone in recognizing that the printing press represented a sea change for anyone who wanted to put forth an alternative perspective in the public sphere.

Fifty years after Gutenberg’s invention, there were more than 100 presses in six countries. More than eight million books had been printed, “almost all of them filled with information that had previously been unavailable to the average person.” New innovations facilitated discussion of the material: page numbers and tables of contents were introduced in the 16th century so that readers could easily identify particular sections and share those sections with their friends.

The school is one gatekeeping institution that lends credibility to certain types of information while discounting the importance of others. Other gatekeeping institutions soon emerged, such as newspaper editorial boards which framed public debates and decided which new books were worthy of review. Academic journals asserted themselves as structures of control in the scientific community. Even modern bureaucracy and management science are examples of new gatekeeping institutions that emerge to address information glut. In the words of Postman, “a bureaucracy is simply a coordinated series of techniques for reducing the amount of information that requires processing.” Or, a tad harsher: “the word ‘bureaucrat’ has come to mean a person who by training, commitment, and even temperament is indifferent to both the content and the totality of a human problem.”

For Postman, technology and bureaucracy threaten agency and free thinking. We see the Technopoly when a bureaucrat tells us that a logical, reasonable service can’t be provided because “the system won’t allow me to.” We develop systems to cope with the abundance of information, and in the process we become subservient to technological solutions that are inflexible to our needs.

Present Shock

In 2004 Douglas Rushkoff won the Neil Postman Award from the Media Ecology Association, a group of researchers that study the way communication technologies affect the way we communicate. In his blog post reflecting on the award, Rushkoff notes that “Neil [Postman] didn’t really like my books … They were too optimistic and uncritical, in his opinion.” While Rushkoff credits Postman as an intellectual influence, his post emphasizes that he didn’t share Postman’s “trepidations about new media.”

Nearly ten years later, with the publication of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff has reversed his position; the book reads like a 20th anniversary update to Technopoly. Postman’s influence is so clear throughout the book that it is almost suspicious that he is not mentioned. Much like Technopoly, Present Shock begins by warning its readers that the loss of “big stories” threatens our ability to make meaning out of the infinity of small moments that comprise our lives.

Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important— which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic.

Echoing Postman again, Rushkoff emphasizes America’s obsession with invention at the expense of narrative: “While Europe maintained the museums and cultures of the past, America thought of itself as forging the new frontier. Only, America’s frontier was less about finding new territory to exploit than it was about inventing new technologies, new businesses, and new ideas to keep the economy expanding and the story unfolding.”

We have moved from meaning to the moment, from the Big Narrative to the most exaggerated form of what Lyotard celebrated as the “petite narrative.” While Rushkoff acknowledges that “there is certainly a freedom associated with the collapse of narrative, it is very easily surrendered to the basest forms of spectacle and abuse.” Take television. Among a minority of viewers, we are living through the golden age of narrative television with series like The Wire, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. But the vast majority of television programming has moved beyond narrative. The invention of the remote control — combined with access to hundreds of channels on cable and satellite — placed constant anxiety into the hand of the television viewer. Should I be watching this, or is something better out there waiting for me? We stopped watching television and began flipping through it.

And so today’s television viewer moves from show to show, capturing important moments on the fly. Surf away from the science fiction show’s long commercial break to catch the end of the basketball game’s second quarter, make it over to the first important murder on the cop show, and then back to the science fiction show before the aliens show up. Without the time or permission to tell a linear story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, television programmers had to work with what they had—the moment.

New genres of television emerged, crafted around moments rather than stories. Reality TV offers the viewer a constant barrage of emotional micro-dramas. You can constantly tune in and tune out without ever following a narrative. The rise of Beavis and Butt-head, Saturday Night Live and John Stewart exemplify the eclipse of narrative by meta-narrative. Scriptwriters began to focus on poking fun at ridiculous stories rather than crafting their own. Irony replaced plot. Adult cartoons like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurarama, and Southpark all have stories, but they “never seem to be the point,” writes Rushkoff. Rather they are a collection of moments that poke fun at reality. Programs like Law & Order and CSI don’t’ tell the stories of crimes, but rather deconstruct crime scenes moment by moment with a constant focus on blood, sex and the latest forensic gadgets. They are collages of soft porn and the constant threat of violence. They are moments of tension to be absorbed between other distractions. “Narrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns.”

The invention of the remote control and cable television gave us more choice and the constant temptation to shift from moment to moment in search of something more interesting, more provocative. But cable television was mere baby steps compared to the constant anxiety of identity manufacturing, social envy and info-snacking that is the social web. We have all become victims of FOMO, constantly fearful of missing out. Rushkoff begins his book with a vignette so relatable that it’s become cliche:

She’s at a bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but she seems oblivious to the boys and the music. Instead of engaging with those around her, she’s scrolling through text messages on her phone, from friends at other parties across town. She needs to know if the event she’s at is the event to be at, or whether something better is happening at that very moment, somewhere else. Sure enough, a blip on the tiny screen catches her interest, and in seconds her posse is in a cab headed for the East Village. She arrives at a seemingly identical party and decides it’s “the place to be,” yet instead of enjoying it, she turns her phone around, activates the camera, and proceeds to take pictures of herself and her friends for the next hour—instantly uploading them for the world to see her in the moment.

We can no longer put down the channel-surfing remote control. It has become a fixed feature of contemporary life, constantly vibrating and beeping in our pockets and purses. No matter where we are, no matter who we are with, we are accompanied by the abiding anxiety that perhaps we should be doing something else. Our only defense mechanism is to document our moments with the right Instagram filter to instill envy among our “friends.”

If the collapse of narrative has forced television producers to focus on moments that last two to three minutes, the social web has compressed time even further, from the four-minute YouTube video to the six-second Vine montage; from the four-paragraph blog post to the 140-character Tweet. The collapse of narrative and the compression of time has also affected how we communicate with our friends. Long gone are the letters, emails, and hour-long phone calls that encourage the exploration of specific themes and issues across time. Our communication has become more constant and compressed. As a result, we drift naturally toward irony and wit at the expense of meaning. When is the last time you had a significant, meaningful conversation with a friend, much less a stranger? Such conversations — among life’s greatest pleasures — require us to both ignore external distractions and our own internal compulsion to document everything that feels significant.

Post-Narrative Protests

Even social protest can, at times, feel like channel-surfing.

The flower power children of the 60s and 70s were the last generation to come of age with narrative and meaning. There were real fights to be fought: civil rights, feminism, nuclear disarmament, the peace movement, anti-colonialism, the Chicano movement, the sexual revolution, gay rights. These were mobilizations that brought together millions of people behind a singular goal. They weren’t just protest rallies; they had demands: the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, withdrawal from Vietnam, the organization of migrant workers. Institutions like the NAACP and United Farms Workers offered policy goals to guide the pumping fists in the air toward social change. Eloquent orators like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez offered the unifying narratives.

Today there is no feminism. There are femenisms. When Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In, which encourages women to become more assertive at the workplace, she was celebrated as the new face of feminism on the cover of Time Magazine. But she was also accused on “hijacking feminism” of its focus on social justice by a number of critics. The same is true with racial justice and gay rights: within each movement there are a number of different — often contradictory — perspectives. The most outspoken supporters and critics of affirmative action are minorities. There are no longer the kinds of single, over-arching narratives that bind together social movements as they did in the 60s and 70s. The fragmentation of media has contributed to the fragmentation of mobilization.

The Arab Spring revealed unity in dissent of injustice and impunity, but there is no compelling story to guide us toward a better future. The angry youth of the Middle East and Northern Africa knew that dictatorship is not the model of governance that represents their desires. But they didn’t have a better story to give shape to new institutions. The Arab Spring has engendered a culture of protest more than a culture of rights and representation.

Rushkoff points to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party as two post-narrative reactions to the failure of representative democracy to meet to our contemporary needs. Neither movement has a clear articulation of how government should evolve. They represent “opposite reactions to the collapse of political narrative; the Tea Party yearns for finality while the Occupy movement attempts to sustain indeterminacy.”

Occupy Wall Street just sits there talking with itself, debating its own worth, recognizing its internal inconsistencies, and then continuing on as if this were some sort of new normal.

Reclaiming Meaning

Meaning is no longer handed down; it must be achieved. “Existence precedes essence,” as Sartre put it. So how can we escape the nihilism and cynicism of our post-narrative present? Both Postman and Rushkoff prescribe changes in education as the best antidote to our post-narrative malaise, though their methods differ. Postman insists on the importance of teaching history in order to instill a sense of where we came from and how we arrived to the present. Quoting Cicero, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” But Postman doesn’t just stress the importance of history class; he insists that every subject should be at least 50% history. “Why teach the Pythagorean theorem,” he asks, “without giving students context about the life of Pythagoras, his philosophy, his distaste for beans, and the fact that the theorem that bears his name had been used by the Babylonians and Indians hundreds of years earlier?”

In addition to teaching the history of every subject, Postman advocates that schools give more attention to character than facts, and that they tell a single story that encompasses the fragmented, piecemeal format of education.

Modern secular education is failing not because it doesn’t teach who Ginger Rogers, Norman Mailer, and a thousand other people are but because it has no moral, social, or intellectual center. There is no set of ideas or attitudes that permeates all parts of the curriculum.

Postman would surely recognize David Brooks’ portrait of the modern, meritocratic elite. And he would applaud Brooks’ attempt to teach character and humility to Yale undergraduates. He would likely subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal built on ” the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic.”

While Postman is opposes technological solutions to what he considers to be technology-induced problems, Rushkoff is “less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology.” For Rushkoff, the key to using technology effectively in order to enhance the human experience depends on our understanding how it works. “While I strongly advocate the teaching of computer programming to kids in grade school,” he writes, “I am just as much a believer in teaching kids how to think critically about the programmed environments in which they will be spending so much of their time. The former is engineering; the latter is liberal arts.”

Indeed, after writing an entire book about the importance of programming literacy, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff took a job with Codeacademy, an online platform that aims to teach anyone the basics of programming.

I agree with the recommendations of both authors, though it is ironic that they prescribe even more information (learn history! learn programming!) to address our inability to find meaning in so much information. At some point we must accept if not embrace our ignorance. We must strive to find more meaning in fewer words. We must resist total fragmentation, and craft authentic stories with our lives that guide us toward meaning. We will be more satisfied if we focus less on the moment and more on the long view, less on data and more on stories, less on our identity and more on our place in history.

I am not convinced that we can nor that we should return to a past of Big Narratives led by charismatic leaders. However, the past twenty years of fragmented, “petite narratives” will drive us to obsess over the moment at the expense of meaning. To reclaim meaning and purpose we must once again learn to craft stories.

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