The Telegraph Changed How You Spend Your Time

Technology was supposed to usher in an age of infinite connectivity and ever-deepening relationships. Sold on that promise, we’ve spent the past century accelerating toward instantaneous communication without any hesitation or discussion of its effects. The increasing volume of media and tools has absolutely increased opportunities for connectivity. There is no debate. But has the sea of noise really made us better people?

You’ve had this experience: You’re watching one of the 24-hour news channels. A story breaks, and the anchor brings in a crop-duster pilot to discuss the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Suddenly you realize you’re part of a joke, but no one’s laughing. This isn’t news. This is frantically filling a quota.

TV’s concept of “filling airtime” has painfully spilled over into every moment of our media-saturated lives. It has become who we are. We feel this compulsion to share and opine, to fill the space of our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds — just because those platforms exist.

We’re so busy filling our quotas, we never stopped to ask if we should.

Born in the 1800s, telegraphy (from the Greek τῆλε γράφεινto, “to write” and “at a distance”) was the first medium that really disrupted the relationship individuals had with actionable information. Up until the telegraph, you would have known only what mattered where you live: early spring, local election, thief on the loose. Small potatoes. There was no paradigm for ingesting national news, because any macro-level information could take weeks or months to reach your ears.

Then, charmed by electricity’s novelty and proliferation, man dove headfirst into the allure of long-distance communication — uncertain, and seemingly uncaring, of the consequences. Amid its rapid expansion, Henry David Thoreau pondered the purpose behind telegraphy in Walden:

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

Neil Postman, prescient prognosticator of all media, lifted Thoreau’s critique and went further, proposing that “telegraphy made relevance irrelevant”:

“The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded … A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,’ but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.”

The craving for that single stranger-filled neighborhood would not stop with the telegraph. Over the next hundred years, radio, television, and even the telephone all dramatically increased the number of daily interactions people have with information.

Between 1900 and 1997, telephone calls per capita rose a staggering 6,118 percent, from 38 to 2,325 calls per year. As access to phones grew, the phone conversation became a required aspect of everyday life. Technology coupled with urbanization fueled a movement away from rural towns and toward cities. The telephone was no longer merely a tool for accessing services, but a replacement for human interaction. Children could move hundreds of miles from home and still hold on to Mom and Dad. Previously face-to-face relationships were now relegated to a phone call.

Unsurprisingly, our daily television consumption has also grown. Between 1949 and 2009, it increased a full 3 hours 46 minutes per day—yes, per day—for a total of 8 hours 21 minutes of TV viewing per household, not including secondary viewers or other screens. We have been very creative in ensuring we fill that daily television quota: more channels, longer broadcasts, and more recording flexibility.

Just when it seemed like we couldn’t squeeze one more minute from the day, along came the internet.

The average weekly screen time for an adult is 74 hours. Facebook usersspend an average of 50 minutes per day on the platform. “That’s more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies (an average per day of 2.8 hours). It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes). It’s almost as much time as people spend eating and drinking (1.07 hours).”

The theme is clear: As we have developed new forms of media, we have dedicated more and more of our time to that media — compelling creators to meet the expectations of a growing audience. But engaging with all this media can strain our brain, argues Nicholas Carr in The Shallows. In ode to Thoreau and Postman, Carr notes that “as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise.” We become, like the telegraph,“mindless consumers of data” with no purpose.

The question you have to stop and ask yourself: “Does my ability to quickly send and receive all this information, in all these ways, make me happier or better?”

In a word, no. With more lines of cost-free communication, surely we should see increases in friendships, right? Wrong. According to a 2006 studypublished in the American Sociological Review, “Americans’ number of close friends has shrunk to two,” down from three besties 25 years ago. Gallup’s 2004 survey arrives at a similar conclusion: Americans are losing close friends despite huge advances in technology and lower transaction costs for communicating.

It can’t be a coincidence that increasing engagement with media is occurring in tandem with an increase in isolation. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, says that cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is released every time we receive a text message or push notification. Our brains then attempt to alleviate the anxiety by engaging with the media:

“Prior to smartphones and tablets, we had to learn what to do when we got bored or anxious. We made up games to avoid boredom, and we talked to a friend to feel like we were staying in touch with our social world. Now we just grab our devicesand don’t have to deal with what to do to alleviate those negative feelings.”

Rosen’s argument is simple: We entertain ourselves through infinite feedback loops to avoid a continual state of anxiety. Postman had the same intuition in 1984, long before the internet even existed:

“Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”

And that is what’s dangerous, argues Tristan Harris, a former designer at Google. Major advertising executives depend on you wasting your time.Malicious or not, these companies are squarely focused on “hacking your brain” or involving you for as long as possible with their product, no matter the consequence. The more time you spend on a channel, phone call, or platform, the more money they make. And we should be worried, says Harris: “Never before in history have a handful of people … shaped how a billion people think and feel every day by the choices they make through these screens.”

These futurists, technologists, and entrepreneurs — who have become the new prophets of consumerism — have a vested interest in your compulsion.

“The culture that … now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterised by frenetic production and consumption — smartphones have made media machines of us all — but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness.” —Nicholas Carr

But here’s the secret: These compulsions are contrived and depend only on you, the willing participant. The internet and social media are the inevitable result of our longstanding addiction to media — from television to the telegraph. However, at every moment in history, we always have the opportunity to scale back our participation in media and control these tools that shape our opinions and discourse.

By providing a little more context to the people in your immediate circle and less to the strangers trapped in this compulsive digital world, you just might improve your memory, chill your anxieties, and focus on the thing that really matters: bringing fulfillment to yourself and those around you.

(This was originally published on Medium:

You’re not distracted. You’re entertained.

Stop blaming the media, fake news, and click bait.

Statement: The purpose of media is no longer to inform but rather to entertain for as long as possible.

You find yourself at a confusing moment in history — with frightening events unfolding. Lots of bad information, lots of bad people, and lots of choices being made at the highest levels of government, corporations, and media that seem to exacerbate the overall confusion. You just want answers. No fake news! Fix the algorithms! Stop the liberal media!

But like an addict we tune out the real issue because it’s just too difficult to admit. We make a lot of claims about what that problem could be — yet ignore that it lies in us: media has always been our entertainment.

Working in the online space, I am surprised at the unclear relationship many — even mature — colleagues have with their media. No one likes to think of themselves as wasting time or indulging in wasteful excess. We always have a good excuse!

Ask anyone you know why they spend so much time wading into arguments on Twitter or watching cable news all day in the office. I bet I know the answer you won’t get: “because it’s fun! and I had some down time.” Never. There’s always a very serious reason given for feed addiction, often defended as “learning,” “informing,” or “standing up for something.”

We talk a lot about cognitive bias when discussing fake news — yet, we don’t go a step further and evaluate our own structural biases when it comes to how we understand what knowledge is. In Amusing Ourselves to DeathNeil Postman describes television as the “command center of the new epistemology,” the lens through which we now understand everything else. For Postman in 1984, television was what online media is to us today.

Three decades later, television and online media have now come to shape the very way we interpret and understand information. Pew Research shows that 26% of American adults haven’t read a book in the past year — 40% of non-college graduates.

I fear, by ignoring how embedded it is in our lives and culture, we may not notice its snare. Postman’s litany describes us well: “There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most important of all, there is no subject of public interest — politics, news, education, religion, science, sports — that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.

Is it for work? Is it for fun? Am I learning something? Why the hell am I watching this? These are all questions that should float through your mind as you reach the end of an hour-long Twitter battle over the color of a dress.

But we’ve been conditioned this way by the medium, to take in information and interpret it though the television lens. All that is needed is to look at Fox and Friends or Morning Joe to recognize our addiction to Hollywood — to see how little we actually gain from media.

Postman knew this 33 years ago:

“That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? … We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this — the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials — all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.” — Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

To understand the problem that caused the populist movement this year, we need to understand a fundamental problem in our media that does not have a liberal or conservative bent.

The problem is the constant illusion that our participation is media isalways informative and educational — that, by constantly consuming information and reacting to it, we are providing a net good to society.

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.”  — Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Sound familiar? Postman’s prescience is remarkable. To defend his claim that television (and media) only entertains, he attacks the pedagogical value of education’s media poster child, Sesame Street. What could possibly be wrong with Sesame Street?

“We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.

— Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set is a private preserve.
— Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen.
— Whereas school is centered on the development of language, television demands attention to images.
— Whereas attending school is a legal requirement, watching television is an act of choice.
— Whereas in school, one fails to attend to the teacher at the risk of punishment, no penalties exist for failing to attend to the television screen.
— Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum.
— Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Many may disagree with his take on Sesame Street, but his point has been echoed by education studies ad nauseum over the past 10 years.

There are no all-encompassing, broad-stroke solutions here. Every interaction with media is a personal choice. But I think by illustrating some of media’s shortcomings, we might be able to reign a few smart people in.

Frankly, I don’t mind if you waste your time. Just don’t tell me that what you did was for any other reason other than pure amusement or pleasure. I’ll leave you with Postman’s optimism:

“For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are…Through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

Here’s a bonus. Neil Postman on computers (in 1984): 

“Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology — that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data — will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

(This was originally published on Medium: