Unintended Consequences

Posted: August 11, 2007 in Blogosphere, Education

Newsday.com has a brief article about Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos marketed by Brainy Baby Co. and Walt Disney Co. Commentary has been all over the blogosphere for the past few days. In short, the article says that children exposed to visual stimulation fare worse than those exposed to storytelling and reading as determined by the size of the children’s vocabularies.

Um, could this be any more obvious? Teach words and kids learn vocabulary. Teach images and kids learn … what … more images? It also seems rather obvious that kids would prefer visual to verbal stimulation, much as they prefer sugary foods to veggies. The ironic thing, funny perhaps if it weren’t so insipid, is that parents who take their cues from corporations selling this junk innocently believe they’re doing their kids a favor when in fact the kids are being stunted — a classic case of unintended consequences.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, recommends that even primary education be suffused with semantic analysis of the information environment. Why? So that we can better understand this:

To oversimplify more than is probably justified, we might say that (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2) because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different media have different political biases; (3) because of the physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4) because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media have different social biases; (5) because of the technical and economic structure, different media have different content biases. [from Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity]

If teachers and parents better understood the various biases of information to which children are exposed, would they ever even consider admitting things such as TV, video games, iPods, and various other electronics into children’s daily lives, much less buying into the fatuous notion that these things are educational tools?

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Comments
  1. Eric Goodman says:

    Nice points, Brutus. I’ve read pretty much all of Postman (and others of the ilk) and my wife and I have refused to allow our kids (6 and 7) partake in the TV habit. Friends of course can’t understand that, or how the girls can have no interest in TV or sitting in front of screens of any kind. They write, they draw, they play piano, soccer, baseball, etc. etc. and get by just fine without it.

    Glad to find other Postman admirers out there. I’ve taken his teachings seriously to heart, and have produced a live music video media critique called “Thus Spoke The Spectacle” influenced largely by his writings. It contains one video in particular (“Now…This”) influenced by and named after a chapter from “Amusing Ourselves To Death.” You can find it on the show’s website at http://thespectacle.net or on YouTube at http://youtube.com/SpectacleShow I’m interested in your feedback if you get a chance to have a look. Good post, and cool blog.

  2. Brutus says:

    Eric, to respond so quickly, you must have an automated search for the keywords “Neil Postman” set to direct you to blog posts that mention him.

    I went to your site and viewed the videos. Very interesting and very irritating both. If you explore this blog further, you will see that I have many of the same themes and arguments, though I have not reified the whole morass as The Spectacle. Neither your site nor mine proposes any alternative(s) but merely critiques the status quo. Whereas my unarticulated thesis is the gradual diminution of human consciousness, creating zombies and automatons, it’s unclear to me what your thesis is. In fact, it strikes me as highly ironic that you use the tools of media to critique itself. Is the point the videos? the live show (as performance art)? the book? or are they all prelude to a documentary film? The highly derivative nature of your work also bothers me — the borrowed footage, the Laurie Anderson-style voiceover, the over-amped music, the rhetoric that criticizes other rhetoric, the unembellished quotes from your (our) betters (mostly philosophers and media analysts) — it all strikes me as pastiche.

    The Ten Commandments in the fifth video is a nice touch, though heavy handed with the repeated cuts to Cecil B. De Mille and David Letterman. The final commandment lacks sting, though, and would be better phrased as an Orwellian prohibition: Thou Shalt Never Look Away.

    So while I’m very sympathetic to the message behind your work, I’m bugged by the work itself being a quintessential example of The Spectacle it purports to criticize. The self-promotion and pleading for bookings don’t escape my attention, either. I won’t deign to tell you how to shape your work, but I would probably not sit through a live performance; I would be out the door. On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that the book is still the flagship repository of knowledge and wisdom, and for all its limitations, it remains the best way to transmit complex ideas and to synthesize others’ work. Perhaps your book when it’s available would be more to my taste.

  3. Eric Goodman says:

    Brutus,

    Thanks for taking the time to view the videos and for the thoughtful criticisms. I don’t use automated searches, but do look manually for people discussing the things I’m interested in. The metaphor chosen (Spectacle) comes from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and could have easily come from Postman (Technopoly), Mumford (Megamachine), Ellul (Technological Society), Riesman (Lonely Crowd), and so on. Everyone chooses to call this thing you call a “morass” something or another, so I’m not sure I’d agree that focusing the critique around a concept people can get their hands around is necessarily the same as reifying it.

    I do think that the summaries on the site, along with the videos, make it clear that my concern of zombification is pretty much the same as your own, but I guess that didn’t come through for you. It’s also too bad you wouldn’t make it through the full performance, because afterwards there’s a discussion / Q&A that further helps explore the issues, since the point is to open a dialogue. You’re already familiar with the issues, but to some who haven’t done the same research (especially young people), it helps to have the issues introduced in a format that’s compelling to them, which is the reason for the music video style I’ve chosen. I’ve been successful on a small scale in fostering this conversation through the videos and the live show, more so than I think I would be by just blogging about it.

    You’re right about the irony, and the pastiche element, although a book is no less pastiche as it synthesizes the ideas of others, as you put it. Using a spectacle form to critique the spectacle does have its limitations, but also its advantages. Debord made a movie of his Society of the Spectacle, and other movies as well, and was as much an artist as a writer, diverting the moving and still images of his day with the technology at hand. I’m not sure that today, a full-fledged critique of the Spectacle can be accomplished in only written form, without direct visual references to the media bombardment, but I’m working on the book nonetheless as a companion to the show. Many appreciate the multimedia format; others, like yourself, prefer the written word.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Eric

  4. Brutus says:

    Thanks for your comments, Eric. It appears we’re more in agreement than not. You also answer my principal question: what’s it for? It’s apparently a useful tool to introduce to young people the idea of forfeiting independence of mind to the interests of the mainstream media, which is to say, corporations. Their agendas should not be ours.

    It hadn’t really occurred to me that your approach would be more effective with the uninitiated than the more sober, book approach I take. And of course, you’re right. I hope you make clear the irony of your approach in the Q&A sessions.

    I guess we differ, though, in our apprecitation of the book form and what it means to synthesize others’ work. That behavior is actually very sophisticated and cannot be mere pastiche, even if the synthesis lacks novelty. Besides, such an approach leads inexorably to originality, considering none of us can fully ape the ideas of others. That’s why even canonical teachings (of the church, for example) splinter over time and are creatively reinterpreted.

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