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Neil Postman on the Earthquake in Haiti - One Year Later

I don’t know that I’ve ever done something quite like this before, so let’s try something new. A year ago, two days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I took a stab at suggesting what the late Neil Postman, the author, media theorist and cultural critic, might have to say about it. I suggested that this earthquake was an example of the kind of news that surrounds us today—news that elicits emotion from us, but news we can really do nothing about. In the end, news like this is often barely distinguishable from entertainment to us.

Here we are one year later. I think it’s an interesting exercise to re-read the article and see if any of what I wrote there (again, trying to channel Postman) has proven true.


Haiti

Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.

Our television culture grew out of the age of telegraphy. The great idea in the age of the telegraph was “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” While there was a time when only Haitians would have known about the disaster, today, in our rapidly-shrinking world, it is immediately visible from pole-to-pole. But telegraphy did more than make the world much smaller. It unexpectedly “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.”

We now have context-free information; “that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” And this is exactly what we are seeing today. News of the disaster is a valuable commodity which is why the top reporters from the top networks have all hustled to Haiti to gather information and, even more importantly, to show themselves within the disaster zone. The value of the information being sent to us is not in action but in the information itself.

We cannot overrate the importance of the images we are seeing on the screens before us (and truly they are both moving and horrifying). “In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that ‘the news’ had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the ‘news of the day.’ And the ‘news of the day’ created a context for the photograph. … But the sense of the context created by the partnership of photograph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory.” These photographs arouse our sympathy and somehow make us feel like we have more of a context to understand the disaster. It is not just an earthquake now, but a true disaster for the sad and terrified faces we see in photographs. We now feel like we are somehow attached to the information we are receiving, at least in a way we would not be were we only to read about it.

Yet what do we really know? “Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them. … The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.” Looking at photographs and reading a few headlines is knowledge of but not knowledge about.

Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.’” “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” As we moved away from a typographic world into a telegraphic and television world (and now into a digital world), information became separated from action. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.” This is a kind of information glut that makes us unable to react to all the information available to us or to do anything about most of it. Were we to actively respond to every situation and disaster that we learn about, we would be constantly in motion and constantly bankrupt. “For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.” We have become impotent to react in a meaningful way to the information we consume. “We have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” What do you intend to do about the disaster in Haiti?

Three days from now we will have moved on. Maybe it will take four or five. But honestly, after the weekend, few of us will ever think of Haiti again. The next news story will come along and Haiti will be relegated to history. But three days from now and a week from now, the situation in Haiti will be far worse than it is today. The devastation will be more complete. The pain will be greater. The country has been devastated and it will take years to recover. At the end of the year when the best photographs of 2010 are revealed, the photos of Haiti, that make us weep today, will be nearly forgotten [or Boston.com will post a new gallery one year later]. By then they will be old news, eleven and a half months removed from the headlines. We’ll think, “Oh right, I remember that.” And then we will scroll down to the next photo.

Postman calls the world brought about and fostered by television a “peek-a-boo world” “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

And isn’t that what the Haiti earthquake is for most of us? It is entertainment. That sounds cold but it is exactly the case. If we turn on the television and watch those images and do nothing about it before moving on to the next news item, have we not merely been entertained?

In one regard I have to turn from Postman. Postman, though he knew his Bible well, was not a Christian and did not understand the power of prayer. Though we may be impotent to act, to actually go to Haiti and give aid, we can ask God to accomplish his purposes, even through so devastating a situation. We can pray for the nation and its people. We should pray for them, even, and especially for brothers in sisters in Christ who live in that country. We should pray that as people from around the world head to Haiti to feed the hungry and heal the sick, that they would take the gospel with them. And we can consider giving financially to credible organizations that will be involved in relief efforts (such as Compassion). It turns out that we are not entirely impotent in the aftermath of this great disaster.


What did we do in the last year? How many of us really thought about Haiti between then and now? How many of us have been consistent in our prayers for the nation and its people? How many of us consistently supported aid organizations working there? How much did the devastation we witnessed a year ago shape us in any tangible way? These are all questions I find myself asking one year later.