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The Influence of the Media on Americans

Introduction

With the development of the media into its larger scope, arguments have come from different corners of it being responsible for the serious decline in intellectualism and rationalism. Has media made Americans lose their rationality and intellect and became slaves of the media? Technology is a part of life and adopting it shows one’s ability to accept change, however, some believe that Americans have become completely dependent on technology, which demonstrates incompetence to retain self.

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Bunting (2010) states “The capacity to listen, and other crucial human attributes, are being diminished by relentless technological expansion”. This idea has been reiterated throughout the history of the media. Media has made Americans more dependent on technology, which has affected the memory, rationality, and intellect of the people, which Jacoby (2008) claims, has led to an intellectual decline and therefore, affects the future of democracy.

Jacoby argues that Americans are more eager to follow others like politicians, media, the internet, etc. without questioning their validity. Richard Hofstadter (1963) in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, talks about American revivalism and fundamentalism also believed that Americans were growing less intellectual and rational. These scholars are suggesting that media in all forms, television, video as contrary to print and internet is making people think less, and “search” through for the information. Jacoby argues that this state is the reason for the failure of the public education system and one of the reasons for this is the 24×7-entertainment culture.

Is this new generation of visual media, information available at the tip of their fingers or the internet are a problem to the Americans as it distracts them to infinity reducing their capability to think rationally? Has the evolution of technology and essentially made Americans a dumber race? An immense effort was laid by Jacoby to stress that American intellectualism has drowned away from intellectual life and therefore gone against fundamental democracy and the validity of which will be argued in the following paragraphs.

Changes in Media and Internet

Media and technology have turned Americans susceptible to a way of life, which has made island personalities out of them. Politicians and media have misled Americans to a state of unknowingness and a reduced desire to know. The increasing ignorance, superstition, and naivety that the American population has brought out have been described by Jacoby (2008): “In recent years, television has commissioned an unceasing stream of programs designed to appeal to a vast market of viewers who believe in ghosts, angels, and demons.

More than half of American adults believe in ghosts, one third believe in astrology, three-quarters believe in angels, and four-fifths believe in miracles.” (p. 18) Thus, Jacoby indicates a debased state of American culture. One such instance has been the recurring use of the word “folks” in popular media and by politicians which consider to be casual language and deny the seriousness of the matter which is discussed. The issue is in American people accepting this “junk” and the reason is in the squalor of the American intellect:

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans want both creationism, generally understood as the hard-core fundamentalist doctrine based on the story of Genesis, to be taught along with evolution in public schools. Fewer than half of Americans – 48 percent – accept any form of evolution (even guided by God), and just 26 percent accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living beings, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” (Jacoby 2008, p. 20) “A 1998 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found that one out of four public school biology teachers believes that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.” (Jacoby 2008, p. 25)

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Jacoby clearly indicates that American intellect has gone down. Along with it, she argues that this has been perpetrator on the Americans by a handful of people and mass media. She believes that Americans are slowly denouncing the art of reading be it books or newspapers. However, one could say that this has given rise to a more digitized form of reading through the internet and eBooks; however, one must concede that reading is not perpetrated in digital form.

Internet helps to browse for information but does not facilitate reading (Jacoby 2008). The Age of American Unreasonableness is a proclamation of the declining heritage of a lost culture and an indication of the declining education about religion and science. The reason presented by Jacoby for this state of America is mass media, political discourse, and fundamentalism. Jacoby argues that with the rise of media, there has been a decline in the interest people had towards acquiring knowledge and indulging in stimulating thinking. Jacoby argues that in this new culture of pseudoscience and packaging, the real knowledge is drowned in the political “junk thought”.

The degradation in the candidates of choice as Presidents of Americans demonstrates the declining taste for culture and refinement when she compares George W. Bush’s adventures with public speaking with the intellectually stimulating quotes of Aristotle and Goethe from John F. Kennedy’s speeches. Thus through a series of data on downward trends in American intellectualism, Jacoby presents her view that democracy in the hand of such people can be dangerous: “This is our civic present and if nothing is done to stem the rising tide of ignorance among the young, our even more disturbing civic future.” (Jacoby 2008, p. 299)

Are these arguments, presented by Jacoby, regarding the fall of the American intellect justified? Is the reasoning presented by Jacoby valid and acceptable? One of the foremost problems with Jacoby’s arguments is that she based is valid only on civic statistics without providing an institutional explanation. There has been an undoubted rise in the increase in popular mass media such as television and the Internet. With the availability of easy access to this plethora of information, not only Americans but the rest of the world have become languid. This has led to a reduced intellect and capability to critically think and search for information.

Consumption of mass media in large quantities is problematic as this brings forth a way of life that is harmful to all. J. B. Priestley (1957) in his essay Televiewing suggests that with the rise of televisions, viewers have become more interested in surfing the channels than actually watching anything in particular, and therefore, becoming island personalities, who may sit with a roomful of people, and yet be indifferent to the rest.

In a soulful personal reflection made by Gozzi (1997) the consumerism of mass media was exemplified: “I had assumed that television shows were the product of the TV industry. Actually, / was the product of the television industry — as a member of an audience, I (or rather my attention) was being sold to advertisers.” (pp. 97-8) Neil Postman (1985) has stated regarding television that “so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events” (1985, p. 119). A similar view has been presented by Jacoby, who believes, that technology should be a facilitator and not as one’s master.

Technology, especially Internet has provided profound choices. However, are people well equipped to make an informed choice? To make use of the massive amount of information it is necessary to make that informed choice. Jacoby argues that the present level of American intellect does not.

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One big reason for this is the decline among Americans in the reading habit (Jacoby 2008). Others like Maryanne Wolf (2008) reading shapes the individual: “… reading displays how the most basic design principles in the brain’s organization underlie and shape our continuously evolving cognitive development.” (p. 216) Wolf argues that reading enhanced “the intellectual development of the individual reader and the culture” (2008, p. 216).

Thus, the declining trend in reading as suggested by Jacoby is a concern for the American society as this indicates, taking Wolf’s argument, and a decline in the cognitive personality development of individuals. The point of difference between Wolf and Jacoby is the acceptance and usage of digitized reading. While Jacoby completely proclaims the negative effects of digital reading, Woolf believes that technology and digital reading can “have extremely promising implications for the intellectual development of the users, particularly users with discrete areas of weakness that applied learning technologies can address directly and well.” (2008, p. 220)

Therefore, Jacob’s argument that digital reading cannot be equated with the traditional form of reading is partial as this fails to acknowledge the fact that “cognitive abilities” required for such reading has not yet been adopted by the educators (Wolf 2008).

Conclusion

Mass media has a lot of adverse effects on individuals and it has raised the age of consumerism and shortcuts. The intellectual schism that American civilization is facing is undeniable however, blaming the politicians and the media for such a degradation amounts to a partial attitude towards the new. With time there have arrived changes in the way people talk and what they read, otherwise people would have still been conversing in Shakespearean English.

However, calling these changes “downward” and questioning the intellect of the Americans based on civic data is argumentative. Whether Americans are becoming dumber or not is questionable and so is, the argument that mass media has contributed to the downturn. Postman (1985) points out that television is full of “junk” and a triviality like “junk” cannot be the measure of a culture. Nevertheless, cannot the junk defile the people to such an extent that they ruin their culture? If it is “junk”, how can it defile the whole American culture, eludes the sense of many yet with some sense left?

References

Bunting, M 2010, Increasingly, the rarest experience in family life is undivided attention. Web.

Gozzi, RJ 1997, ‘Is Childhood Dissapearing Out Here in Television Land?’, Etc.: A Review of General Semantics , vol 34, pp. 97-101.

Hofstadter, R 1963, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Knopf.

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Jacoby, S 2008, The Age of American Unreason, Vintage Books, New York.

Postman, N 1985, Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business, Penguin, New York.

Priestly, JB 1957, ‘Televiewing’, in Thoughts in teh Winderness, Kennikat Press, New York.

Wolf, M 2008, Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain , Icon Book, 212-229.

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