You can’t look after others if you are dead: Blogging the Octonauts – Manatees, S2, E19.

Having three children under 10, a reasonable proportion of my time is spent watching children’s programmes. While I have of late been damning the notion that there is such thing as a digital native, no one can doubt that we live in a far more media saturated world than the one we grew up in. Whether this actually has far reaching cognitive impacts is another thing, but it is a challenge as a parent to find the balance in a world where children could theoretically watch a programme literally all the time. This is even more so the case in world where the moral posturing and virtue signalling around children’s culture (a rather clumsy formulation, but there you go) is stronger than ever

Anyhow, one of my very favourite programmes is the OctonautsSlightly magna-ified sea creatures posse who embark on Jacques Cousteau-ish adventures, this show – based on Meomi’s book series (though somewhat more grounded in realistic marine biology)

The shows are warm, engaging, and often rather witty. It feels a little churlish to begin a series of occasional blog posts with a mild criticism, especially in an otherwise delightful episode… but here we go.

The Octonauts and the Manatees” involves the Octonauts moving a group of manatees away from a lightning storm. In this episode, the manatees themselves are engagingly detailed, laid-back surfer-dude type vegetarians. Gentle tiki tiki music plays as their theme. Indeed, they are one of my favourite among the creatures the Octonauts help (and in real life too – and I am sad to report just discovering that Snooty the world’s oldest manatee died only a couple of weeks ago.

Back to the Octonauts, what’s not to love? Well, there is one thing… probably the only quibble I have with the whole Octonaut canon (except possibly a mild tendency to product placement)

In this episode, Captain Barnacles’ GUP is struck by lightning. This is what leads to him meeting the manatees in the first place, and therefore his rescue. However, Barnacles has to abandon his GUP and finds his paw stuck in a giant claw. He cannot move at all. Yet he does not ask his fellow Octonauts for help – despite multiple occasions to do so, and ultimately runs perilously short of air. I won’t ruin anything else (well, this is a children’s programme) but Barnacles is show subjugating his own life or death situation to the need to have the manatees looked after.

The Octonauts spirit of helping all creatures great and small is admirable (although the moral dilemma of how one helps prey evade predator, and in the next episode predator out of their snafu, is not fully grappled with) In this episode, however, I was a bit disturbed by how far Barnacles takes the principle of not asking for help while the manatees need help. It is a well established principle that if you take care of others, you need to take of yourself. In life support courses from simple CPR ones to Basic Life Support to Advanced Cardiac Life Support it is emphasised to check one’s own safety first. This is for a good reason; dead, you can’t help anyone much.

Octonauts is a wonderful show and I hope to blog more (and in a more openly enthuiastic vein) about some of the episodes in future – but this rather reckless self-denial is something I wish were a little different.


Review of “Blockbuster”, Tom Shone, SAU Blog, February 2005


Here is the original. Tom Shone’s big idea seemed more radical in 2005 than it does now –  indeed now it is pretty much mainstream. The triumph of what is still sometimes called pop culture in taking over the commanding heights of cultural discourse has been remarkable. And yet, it has been at the cost of how genuinely popular it is.

Twelve years later, as a father of three, the point about children making their own toys inspired by, for instance, Star Wars – rather than being in thrall to whatever Official Product emerges  – still stands!



Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

by Tom Shone

Pp352. Simon and Schuster, 2004

Hardback, £18.99


There’s what must be a deep-rooted human need to frame history in terms of easily digestible narratives. For instance, the benighted Dark Ages gave way to the glories of the Renaissance and the freethinking inquiry of the Age of Enlightenment. Subtleties, nuances, inconvenient facts and interpretations – all discarded as we form a smooth narrative of the light overcoming the darkness.


Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has become a bestseller by articulating what has become the dominant narrative, to use a post-modernist-sounding phrase, of recent cinematic history. In this account the venal capitalist illusion factory that is Hollywood, was, for a brief glorious sunlit spell in the early seventies, taken over by visionaries who made individual, witty, personal films. Then Jaws and Star Wars happened, and the golden era ended. Vapid blockbusters and movies aimed at adolescents of all ages were churned out by the studios.


The book Blockbuster could be called Shone Contra Biskind – indeed the subtitle refers not only to Dr Strangelove but also to Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the 50s. For Tom Shone the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars was not the end of cinema, but the beginning. He is bracingly irreverent of the pretensions of the early Seventies, quoting with evident approval the young Robert Zemeckis’ appraisal of Death in Venice as “one of the most boring movies ever made” and filling his work with sideswipes at poseurs suffering through retrospectives of post war Hungarian cinema to achieve some kind of “cool” kudos. For those for whom the words “arthouse” and “independent” threaten boredom and promise pretension rather than any guarantee of quality, this will be an enjoyable read.


Shone begins with the young Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and Cameron, growing up in the suburban sprawl that would be derided by any good Biskindite, beguiled not by films but by TV. Films had become pompous and ponderous, with studio executives believing that treacly, worthy spectacle was the only response to the growth of television. The future prophets of Blockbusterdom all made their own fun, with elaborate science experiments and inventions generally attracting the attention of the local fire department.


Shone’s own childhood also features in these early stages. He recalls the shattering impact of Star Wars, and pace the sundry bores who thought the merchandising of the film was the work of wicked manipulative capitalists, shows how it was simply a response to a massive public demand. Shone and his friends made their own Star Wars memorabilia while waiting for slow-footed toy companies to actually make the official toys. So often children are portrayed as passive consumers, tabulae rasae pliable to the suggestions of advertisers and therefore requiring protection from this noxious breed. Shone’s experience would suggest that children are more in control of the market than the market is in control of them.


Writing in a witty, conversational style, Shone is nevertheless a shrewd critic whose insights never fail to provoke some thought, some reconsideration of one’s own lazy pseudo-high brow prejudices. He writes on something I’ve often noticed – how there are no positive portrayals of capitalism in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that the studios are all owned by capitalist conglomerates. Here he is on why “quality” critics and academics are usually clueless in writing about genuinely popular movies:


It is a congenital defect of critics at the higher end of the brow when faced with appraising popular movies, whose very smoothly oiled efficiency can seem suspect, hence the perennial appearance of Vertigo on Sight and Sound’s list of best ever films: Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.

It turns out that Shone is as nostalgic as Biskind, but his nostalgia is for the early days of the blockbuster boom. Today Variety can blithely refer to a “failed blockbuster”, a phrase that would have been oxymoronic thirty years before. Once, a blockbuster was defined by its box office success. Now a blockbuster is a certain type of spectacle-driven, “event” movie.


An interesting feature of Easy Riders, Raging Bull was how little of it was about the films themselves, and how much about deals, about producers, about the business and politics of moviemaking rather than anything about them. This is a continuing strain in highbrow (or rather would-be highbrow) writing about Hollywood. Witness Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood, an initially very enjoyable anthology of writing about Tinseltown that gradually wears thin. There are only so many appalled anecdotes recounted by rather precious writers making mock of the philistinism of Hollywood folk that one can take. And any book ostensibly about Hollywood that contains one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain and pages and pages on Ishtar and the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra is certainly more interested in the attendant tittle-tattle than the films produced by the philistine studio executives et al.


Shone, unlike Biskind, actually discusses the movies he adores as movies. Or rather he does at the start of his tome. After E.T. there is a noticeable change in tone. We read more and more about the producers and their deals, and less about the end product of all this effort. Shone is as appalled as any Biskindite at a world in which widely hated films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix Reloaded, disliked even by fanatics of the “franchise” they are part of, take enormous sums at the box office and ascend the ranks of all-time highest grossing movies.


For a place always portrayed as in thrall to profit at all costs, money doesn’t matter in Hollywood, or rather it matters hugely but not in the way one expects. Rob Long, one of the writing team of Cheers who later documented his absurd adventures in Tinseltown in Conversations With My Agent, wrote of the “Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics”, the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.


Following from that point, one can discern a more general point about artistic creation of any kind from this book. George Lucas griped that the original Star Wars featured only 50% of what he wanted to achieve, and was proud that his vastly increased clout allowed him The Phantom Menace to meet 90% this target.


Faced with the amazingly insipid films that were the recent instalments in the Star Wars “franchise”, who could claim that advances in technology or in the power of directors have improved filmmaking? Computers have made special effects so ubiquitous that there’s nothing special about them anymore. The Matrix sequels also support the contention that, contrary to the widespread prejudice against “the suits” cramping the creative vision of directors, directors need to have something or someone to rein in their extravagances.


Spielberg, too, later admitted that Jaws would have been far inferior with the technology of fifteen years later – the frankly ludicrous-looking shark was kept until the right dramatic moment. Shone contrasts this with the first sight of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – a resounding anti-climax as the wonderful technology allows Spielberg to show the creatures in their glory, munching passively in a field. Again and again, bigger does not mean better. Jaws – sprightly, irreverent, even gritty at times – seems closer to Taxi Driver than Jurassic Park, more successful at the box office but much less a part of any collective cultural consciousness (think of the theme from Jaws, and now try to think of the one from Jurassic Park).


Jurassic Park’s release coincided with the round of GATT talks that considered European quotas limiting the release of American movies. Shone is strong on the irony of all this, as Hollywood itself was increasingly a trans-national identity. “American movies” were never less American than in the 1990s, as German and Dutch directors, Canadian locations, and money from all over the globe combined to produce the potent blockbusters.


The subtitle of the book should perhaps have been something like “The Rise and Fall of the Blockbuster”. Anthony Powell once said of Kingsley Amis that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension”. Anti-pretension for its own sake becomes limiting and confining, just as eccentricity for its own sake is just irritating, and non-conformism for its own sake the worst form of conformism.


Tom Shone’s argument is anti-pretension through and through, yet he cannot bring himself to the ultimate pretentious anti-pretension stance and learn to love the Hollywood of Godzilla and The Matrix Reloaded. Blockbuster is an enjoyable, witty guide to the Hollywood mainstream of the last thirty years, and how it has been the most prominent victim of its own extraordinary success

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of The Laboured Modernisation

From The Social Affairs Unit blog on January 5th 2005.

Since this was written, and even more “modernised” version, the BBC’s “Sherlock”, has been made and widely celebrated. While I initially quite enjoyed Sherlock, it was always rather tricksy and self-consciously “modern.” I also increasingly found the unreality of the plots and the contrived twists off-putting. The less-heralded US series Elementary was a more human scale modernisation – and Jonny Lee Miller a better Sherlock.

We also had two movie Sherlocks with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, somewhat closer to contemporary action movies  I am sure now a rewatch of”Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking” would seem rather quaint. Re-reading this review, it strikes me as a more fundamental “modernisation” than either Sherlock or Elementary; what is “updated” is not the physical setting but the attitudes and practices of the profiler/forensic TV show.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Laboured Modernisation

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking
BBC1, 26th December 2004

Inevitably, each age will have its own approach to the major texts of its literature and the great plays of its dramatic history. We simply cannot view the treatment of Shylock as equitably as an Elizabethan audience might have, for instance. This is surely uncontroversial and clear. It’s another thing to insist, as so many do, that we need to “reinvent” or “reimagine” the classics, “improve on it” in the manner of Romeo Coates polishing up Shakespearean soliloquies. “Versions” of Shakespeare or the ancient Athenian tragedians in which contemporary political and moral attitudes are transplanted wholesale onto the originals are ever popular – for surely no modern audience could sit through Aeschylus or The Tempest without the requisite “relevance” and lashings of contemporary politics and preoccupations?

The Sherlock Holmes stories can hardly be claimed to be works of art of the equal of the above examples. However, they are revived as often – more so perhaps, since Holmes is claimed to be the most portrayed character in the history of the cinema, ahead of Dracula. The world of Holmes is both more and less amenable to the reinventing imagination of directors than that of Shakespeare or Sophocles.

Less so, because they are set in a very specific time and place, a landscape with instantly recognisable landmarks; Mrs Hudson, Hansom cabs, pea-soupers – all instantly recognisable dramatic shorthand. We see the silhouette of a deerstalker-clad face with meerschaum pipe – a popular image that owes much to the illustrator Sidney Paget and the actor William Gillette who incarnated Holmes on stage, rather than anything in the stories – and instantly we are in Holmesland. There is something of the security blanket about the Holmes world, a literary pill to banish all cares. One can see why it makes sense to produce another Holmes drama in the Christmas season.

More so, because from the very start Holmesland was the creation of imaginations other than Conan Doyle’s. Doyle famously disliked his creation, hurling Holmes off the Reichenbach falls in what would be a failed attempt to kill him off. Doyle wrote the stories with scant regard for the creation of a mythos and chronological missteps, inconsistencies in character and even appearance and similar slips abound. From the never used phrase “Elementary, My dear Watson” to the impedimenta of Paget and Gillette and children’s adaptations featuring mice or Bassett hounds as Holmes, the Holmes image has long departed from the control of Conan Doyle.

The legions of Holmes fanatics do their best to reconcile the inconsistencies in the “Canon”, to use the jargon for the original Doyle stories. It’s an uphill task. In the very first “Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.”, A Study in Scarlet, Watson makes a catalogue of Holmes’ knowledge, which concludes his awareness of literature, philosophy and astronomy is precisely “nil”. Holmes is cheerily, proudly ignorant of the Copernican system. Later in the Canon, of course, Holmes declaims Goethe in German, cites Carlyle, and generally displays polymathic breadth of knowledge.

Holmes is therefore a tempting target for reimagining and revising, as well as a reliable ratings draw. BBC1 were therefore onto a sure winner with their Boxing Day presentation of Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, a brand-new tale of Holmes and Watson with Rupert Everett and Ian Hart incarnating the consulting detective and his medical sidekick respectively.

Holmes’ cocaine habit is irresistible for modern directors, hopeful as they are that it lends him a sort of street cred, and it came as little surprise that we first glimpse Holmes lounging in an opium den. Meanwhile, a body turns up in the foggy Thames estuary (London is fog bound more or less throughout the action), and Watson turns up at the autopsy. Here we see one of the major influences on the producers – the current vogue for pathologist-heroes, the likes of the various CSI shows and Silent Witness. In this case, however, the pathologist is not a hero, quickly deciding that the corpse is of a prostitute.

Watson, having bullied Holmes out of his sottish torpor, reveals that the corpse is actually of a virgo intacta and it is left for Holmes to conclude that the young lady is a daughter of the aristocracy. The young lady’s cold mother at first denies that the cadaver could be her daughter’s, and barely reacts when persuaded to reconsider by Holmes. Her equally cold-fish husband is a portrayed as a creep of the first water, engaging Holmes’ services with barely a glimmer of grief.

I thought for a while that we would be in for a story of the Unfeeling Aristocracy and their perverse passions. However, another young, aristocratic debutante is abducted and found hanging from a lamp-post on Westminster Bridge. Her parents are sincerely grieved, expressed in televisual terms by lots and lots of weeping. The stoniness of the first set of parents is left hanging, lurking until it too plays a role in the unsatisfactory denouement. We are plunged into the pursuit of a sexual sadist, a fetishist who is abducting young ladies of the aristocracy and dressing them in the clothes of his previous victim before killing them in turn.

Watson’s fiancée, a Ms (or was it Mrs?) Vandeleur, then takes the stage. She is a psychotherapist, who hands Sherlock (with whom she is on ostentatiously first-name terms) a volume of Krafft-Ebbing and rattles off the names of as many sexual deviances as possible. Later she pops up again, after another young aristocratic female is abducted, but released by the killer (on account, it seems, of having had surgical correction of a club foot) and undergoes a sort of debriefing from Mrs Vandeleur.

The other major preoccupation and stylistic role model of the drama is thereby revealed. The psychological profiler, that shadowy, seemingly omniscient figure as portrayed in the likes of Cracker, has traveled in the time machine for the updating. Later Holmes gives a speech to the detectives investigating the crimes that echoes so many serial killer movies, describing in psychological detail “the type of man we’re dealing with”: “a sexual deviant … a ruthless killer”.

Of course, Holmesians have claimed Holmes as a forefather of psychological profiling for years. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, he describes the murderer as:

A tall man, left-handed, limps with his right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a gray cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt pen-knife in his pocket.

But this is not profiling in the Cracker sense, or in the sense of The Case of the Silk Stocking. In Boscombe Valley, Holmes’ precision is based on observation of the physical environment, and all his conclusions are on physical characteristics. In the case of the Silk Stocking, however, presumably under the influence of the Krafft-Ebbing, Holmes produces a litany of psychological insights.

There was much to admire in this production. Period authenticity and the physical atmosphere of a Holmesland were well created. The music helped create this atmosphere, but one had the constant sense of having heard it before in other films and TV dramas. Indeed, Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna Dell Strade di Madrid No. 6 was used at the very end of the film, as it was in Master and Commander to rather similar effect. A wonderful piece of music and a rousing closing theme it may be, but there is something rather low-rent and unimaginative about this recycling.

Rupert Everett made an effective Holmes; able to capture the louché lassitude with the underlying reserve of boundless energy of Holmes at the beginning of so many of the stories, and the blend of solicitude and the insensitive focus on cracking a case that marks his dealing with the victims of crime. He does not have the hawk-like face of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, which may be why Ian Hart, reprising his role as Watson from the 2002 BBC Hound of the Baskervilles, is not the Watson of popular image. Just as the deerstalker and meerschaum pipe were Paget’s legacy, our image of Watson as a rotund buffoon derives from Nigel Bruce in the role opposite Rathbone rather than anything in the stories.

Hart’s vigorous, rather irritable, evidently intelligent Watson, may seem a more suitable right-hand-man, but there is something lacking in the chemistry between them. As well as being that bit dimmer than Holmes, to give the readers or audience a representative in the action, Watson should be an emollient, good-tempered figure.

Overall, this was a disappointment for two major reasons. Firstly, the key twist in the tale. Presumably the drama will be repeated, and possibly released on DVD, so I won’t divulge it here. But this twist is spectacularly lame. Correcting stories written for English composition in primary school, teachers would reserve their strongest condemnation for stories that ended with some variation of the words “I woke up. It was just a dream”. (Do primary school teachers now dare indulge in such common-sense criticism?) The resolution of The Case of the Silk Stocking is nearly as bad a cop-out.

Perhaps the producers could cite Conan Doyle as precedent – in the later stories, which all too often bear the signs of literary water-treading, he would increasingly enlist a deus ex machina, with obscure Indian toxins and killer jellyfish being enlisted to provide solutions to narrative problems.

Secondly and even more fundamentally, there seems something jarring in matching Holmes with a series of sordid sex crimes. It is like setting Miss Marple on the Soham murders, or Poirot on the Wests. The great literary detectives deal with schemes and plots, not the banal lust-driven crimes of the killer (or killers – still don’t want to give too much away) in this production. Sexual killers may be cunning in their way, but their crimes can hardly be claimed to possess the certain elegance and mystery that matches Holmes’ efforts. Krafft-Ebbing, debriefing, psychological profiling – all belong to a different world than the one Conan Doyle created. It says something about today’s television producers that they feel the need to stuff all this into every drama rooted in the past.

Further notes on the cultural hegemony of television

I have blogged before  on television’s rise, rather than fall, in recent years, to become (seemingly) the dominant cultural force. I am always struck, when logging onto twitter, to see that the trending topics are dominated by television (#latelateshow, #ptinvestigates, #cblive) or sport (which is on television) So much for the decentralising, do-it-yourself culture that the internet was supposed to bring to us.

I was struck while reading this somewhat ho-hum Daily Telegraph story by this:

The issue will be debated in the House of Lords on Monday and Mr Purnell says peers must back a an amendment to force television service providers to give top billing to the corporation.

“If we don’t update the rules, we’re at serious risk of losing something very special about our British culture,” Mr Purnell argues.

“This isn’t about forcing people to watch public service programmes, or stopping anyone watching American shows we all love. It is about making sure you can find them easily”


The line “American shows we all love” is perhaps not one I should overinterpret, but I am going to do so anyway – surely it is indicative of a kind of flattening of cultural interests. I have never really seen the appeal of a certain kind of glossy, slick US TV show which flaunts a kind of superficial realism and knowingness, a kind of self-congratulatory “good writing”, a kind of moral superiority… and is expertly packaged to manufacture a kind of cult-like enthusiasm. The endless one-liners, the monocultural worldview (with a superficial emphasis on “diversity”), the remorseless sense of a corporate agenda wrapped up in superficially rebellious dress.

I know I have used the word “superficial” quite a lot there.

And I have given no actual specific examples.

To hell with it – let’s just say that if you talk about “American shows we all love”, include me out.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death 31 years on

I read quite a lot of Neil Postman about a decade ago. Always a readable and provocative voice, I must admit I take him rather less seriously since reading more widely about the history of childhood and realising his dogmatic statements about “the invention of childhood” in The Disappearance of Childhood are, to say the least, tendentious. While I don’t buy all of Evgeny Morozov’s arguments, I do find his contention that Postman’s approach to “technology” ultimately reifies it as a sort of unstoppable force convincing. However this is not to gainsay Postman’s insights and also perhaps this is a case where flaws in rhetoric distract the essential truth of an argument

Having re-posted my SAU post on Steven Johnson it seems a good time to republish my 2005 piece on the same site on Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.  The Hugh Kenner anecdote repeated in the first paragraph illustrates well one of the flaws in the tendency to find that a particular media (or technology) “created” this or that cognitive phenomenon. And yet… this reminds me of an academic paper I read criticising Murray Schafer’s soundscapes on various grounds, especially his exploration of how mechanical sound, recorded sound and amplified sound marked a discontinuity from a world of natural sounds. While the paper made some valid points about agency and the nature of the word “natural” and so forth, I found the essence of Schafer’s point remained untouched.

Amusing Ourselves to Death
by Neil Postman
first published in 1985

Neil Postman, who died in 2003 was one of the generation of media studies figures who followed Marshall McLuhan and saw themselves continuing his work. Readers of this blog will no doubt have their own views on McLuhan. The originator of the terms “global village” and “the medium is the message” undoubtedly has some right to be considered a prophet of the modern age. Sometimes one can go a bit too far with the medium-is-the-message business though. The late Hugh Kenner, responding to McLuhan’s claim that the development of cartography during the Renaissance created a geographical sense that had never previously existed, sent a postcard to the media studies guru reading:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

Politically Postman was a solid Democrat, and indeed the cover of my copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death, his best known work, shows the features of Ronald Reagan, evidently on the cathode ray tube, with a clown’s red nose in situ. Inside, he remarks that “black voters are the only rational voters left in America”, as, in Postman’s account, they vote en bloc for the party that serves their interests best, rather than any other perceived interest. Again, no doubt regular readers of this blog will have their own views on this and various other asides.

Personally, the most serious point against Postman is that Amusing Ourselves to Death apparently inspired pompmeister Roger Waters of The Wall fame to record the album Amused to Death, no doubt as turgid and bombastic as most of his other works. I suppose being adopted by bore-rockers can happen to anyone.

All this can obscure the fact that Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, is a bracing, provocative examination of the deleterious effect of television on our lives. More specifically, on our political, cultural and spiritual lives.

Postman begins with Orwell and Huxley’s dystopias. Orwell’s 1984and Animal Farm were visions of coercion, of unlimited state control. Orwell’s fear was of tyranny imposed from without. Huxley’s Brave New World [see review by David Womersley], however, portrayed a society whose citizens were not coerced into anything but joyously embraced a life of apparent ease and comfort.

There is a danger in this line of argument of a lazy moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A (for Postman would class the then USSR and China as Orwellian tyrannies, with the U.S.A. a potential Huxleyan one). Nevertheless, there is much to be said for it. Postman writes:

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

In an era of universally available nutrition, analgesia and entertainment that would make the mightiest Caesar blush, one need only read Dr Theodore Dalrymple’s reports of medical practice in a slum area of an English city to realise that satiety of physical pleasures is not associated with a fulfilled, happy, free life.

The key to the book come when, discussing the Second Commandment prohibition of graven images, Postman writes:

It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, and unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.

Postman’s contention is that the medium is not only the message, but the metaphor that shapes our thought; the medium moulds our thinking and communication far more than vice versa. If an oral, non-representational culture was necessary for the great abstraction of Jehovah, the nature of communication and representation in any culture will help determine its characteristic modes of thought and enquiry. We are in the age of television; the opening chapters discuss the “Age of Typography” which preceded it. Postman writes well on the Nineteenth Century United States, one of the most literate societies of all time if not the most literate. He gives the example of the famous series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, the first of which took place in Ottowa, Illinois on August 21, 1858.

Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed … For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters preceded as Lincoln had outlined.

It’s impossible to imagine any audience today cheerfully coming back for four more hours of anything, let along “talk”. Postman is strong on the “Age of Exposition”:

the name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press.

This era ended abruptly, in his account, with Morse’s telegraph, which suddenly filled newspapers with information from remote areas that became a commodity known as “news”. Postman makes an observation that strikes a chord with me, and I assume anyone else who often wonders at the tremendous fuss that is made about “the news”:

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have such consequence; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about a crime will do it, if by chance the crime occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.

The weakest chapter of the book follows, “The Age of Showbusiness”. Much of this consists of various examples of the trivialisation of culture from the mid-1980s. Postman deploys rather leaden humour on these examples; for instance he makes much heavy weather of mocking an airline cabin crew who organised various games for their passengers. I for one found this a reasonable way of enlivening what was no doubt a tedious flight.

On the whole when he is not trying to be funny, Postman is very readable. Amusing Ourselves to Death possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which:

enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” [but nevertheless] it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.

It is a not particularly heavy labour to read Postman, despite his seriousness. Some of this is the thrill of all jeremiads and hellfire sermons. There is something wonderfully bracing about being told how terrible everything is.

The slight crankishness of tone helps rather than hinders this readability. One is conscious reading the book that this was a man who wrote in longhand all his life; the title of his last book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Futureshows perhaps where his historical sympathies lay.

The nub of the second section of the book is the insidious effect of television in converting public discourse into entertainment. In religion, in politics, and in education, television’s grammar is one of entertainment, one that corrupts the serious, the divine, the pedagogical. For Postman, The A Team and Dallas are preferable to any current affairs programme or “serious” documentary.

This aesthetic of public-affairs-as-entertainment easily migrates to the radio. How often listening to Morning Ireland (Ireland’s version of the Today programme) with its smug air of setting the political agenda have I listened to an exchange that goes something like this:

Government Figure says X
Trade Union/Opposition Figure says Y
A minute of so of argument ensues.

And then we move on to something else. It is like the old principle of dialectic, except thesis and antithesis never meet, let alone synthesise. The soundbite culture of current affairs broadcasting has already been commented upon in this blog, and who can listen to the strident, harrying music of these programmes, the serious gravity of the presenters’ voices (with their occasional lightening of tone for a moment of comic relief) and on reflection not consider that we are not experiencing a genuine attempt to communicate about the world but a carefully packaged piece of satisfyingly grown-up seeming news entertainment? On another point, how many documentaries have you ever seen that made any more points or imparted any more information than would be contained in an article of a thousand words or so?

Education was a particular interest of Postman. He was one of the few public figures to take on the sacred cow that was Sesame Street, and deals with it in the chapter on “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”. He writes:

we now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street’.

More recently, of course, we have seen “computers for schools!” as a sort of all purpose catch-all for improving education. Give them the PCs, and they will learn (rather than looking up dodgy pictures on Google).

Indeed, the effect of communication technology and educational fashion on childhood was a major concern of Postman’s. In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, he wrote:

if all the secrets of adulthood are opened to children, cynicism, apathy or ignorance replace curiosity for them.

Every so often someone demands that children’s fiction must be “relevant”, that rather than wizards and kings children’s stories should deal with drug addiction and broken homes. The popularity of such as Harry Potter is berated as escapism, or even worse some kind of acceptance of bourgeois values. Postman’s is a refreshing recognition that children are not simply mini-adults who should be treated as such.

Despite its crankish and bombastic overtones, there is much to recommend Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the very least, it provokes much thought, at best it allows us to see how television has in some ways corrupted not just our public discourse but even our whole idea of the good life. There is something valuable in both McLuhan and Postman’s examination of:

To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?

It is a commonplace of bien-pensant opinion that, whatever one can say about American television, we at least on this side of the Atlantic have a tradition of quality programming. Of course, in Postman’s terms this is worse than trashy television – better The Bill thanNewsnight. What would he have made of Big Brother?

The cultural hegemony of television: review of “Everything Bad is Good For You” by Steven Johnson – SAU Blog Dec 6, 2006


One of the disheartening things (for me) about how the online world is developed is the primacy of television as a cultural reference point. In the early years of mass internet usage, what was often promised by cheerleaders of the new technology was a sort of renaissance of decentralised culture. What has actually happened has been a consolidation of the power of mass culture (this is separate from the various travails of the music industry)

For a long time anti-television rhetoric was fairly popular in progressive circles. There was Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination Of Television and in the internet age there was (and is) White Dot.

Steven Johnson’s 2006 book was not anti-television, but one of the key planks of its argument was that television was the cultural activity most likely to be squeezed out by the online world (though I note I didn’t refer to this in my review below). Now, invariably trending topics on Twitter are dominated by what is on television at any particular moment; in a clickbait world, arguments like Postman’s and Mander’s don’t seem to be made that much anymore.

Anyway, here is a near-decade old review:

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter
by Steven Johnson
Pp. 300. Harmondsworth: Penguin (Allen Lane), 2005
Hardback, £10

Poor maligned Dr Pangloss (or rather, I suppose, poor maligned Leibniz, cruelly and unfairly pinned by Voltaire with the formulated phrase that will damn his subtle philosophy as idiotic optimism for all time.) “Panglossian” is one of those tags that are always pejorative. For a critic, it is an easy, glib word to dismiss the optimistic.

Few books published this year seem as Panglossian as Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You. (Perhaps the Social Affairs Unit’s own Richard D. North’s Rich is Beautiful may be its main rival on this score).

Its blurb, its promotional materials (such as an article in Wiredmagazine whose strapline advised “stop reading the great authors and start playing Grand Theft Auto”) suggest a sunny picture of moral uplift through computer gaming and watching reality TV, something analogous to a healthy diet turning out to be one of ice-cream and jelly.

How refreshing to find, for instance, that the last ten pages of the book are mainly taken up with an impassioned defence of reading. Indeed, the Wired article’s strapline (which was cited in the New Criterion‘s pasting) seriously misrepresents the book. Johnson is careful to tell us, repeatedly, that he does not suggest that Heart of Darkness is inferior to Grand Theft Auto, that we should stop reading the great authors.

Johnson’s preface sums up his essential thesis:

This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that ultimately aims to convince you of one thing: that popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years. Where most commentators see a race to the bottom and a dumbing down – “an increasingly infantilised society”, in George Will’s words – I see a progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year.

Johnson begins with the most reviled genre of popular culture; computer games. Before reading the book, I would have assumed that one of Johnson’s points would have been the well documented benefits for hand-eye-co-ordination derived from computer gaming. Johnson, however, is rightly contemptuous of hand-eye-co-ordination as a particularly great boon. It is not the ability to quickly slaughter your virtual opponents but the cognitive demands that the best games make on their players that count.

Johnson is right to observe that the likes of Quake (which the Columbine killers were apparently devotees of) are not representative of either computer gaming in general or the really successful titles. The massive sellers of computer gaming are not blast-’em-ups that require nothing but a quick trigger finger but complex simulations of worlds with their own inner logic and structure. For Johnson, the gamers’ practice of testing these worlds, of progressively pushing their physics to the limit, is not merely analogous to the scientific method; it is the scientific method.

Computer gaming provides not instant gratification but delayed gratification. Almost any semi-serious gamer will end up doing a series of repetitive tasks for a greater good. The enormously popular strategy games require the rapid assimilation of basic, and rarely Panglossian, economic theory. Johnson has an optimistic view of the desires of the populace; indeed, he is surely right to note the snobbery inherent in the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist left’s view of the masses as passive consumers of trash culture unless protected from themselves.

Television, too, although the most passive of mediums, has improved greatly in terms of cognitive demands. From the simple plots of Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch to the complex, interlapping threads of The Sopranos and ER – today’s television drama makes far more demands on the viewer. Another example is television comedy – Seinfeld and The Simpsons are replete not merely with references to highbrow culture, but with intratextual references (to use the unlovely jargon) that further prove the cognitive complexity of watching. Johnson’s paradigmatic example is the Seinfeld episode “The Betrayal”, directly based on Pinter’s play. The scenes are in reverse chronological order, thus the punchlines are to jokes the viewers have not yet heard. Using techniques that were avant gardethirty years before, Seinfeld was an enormously popular show that continues to make tens of millions for its creators in syndication.

For Johnson, reality TV is trash. But the comparison is not with Wagner or Conrad, but with the trash of yesteryear. Reality TV, even the worst, is much more cognitively demanding than the likes of The Price is Right. Reality TV makes “Monday morning quarterbacks” (the Irish version is “hurler on the ditch” – is there an English equivalent?) of its viewers, as they try to second-guess the strategies and internal dynamics of the group.

Johnson is at his least convincing trying to persuade us that television is, in fact, a medium which allows one to learn important social skills. He discusses something called an “Autism Quotient” – a measure of how well-developed one’s “theory of mind” is, theory of mind being the ability to imagine what others may be feeling or thinking – and argues that all those hours watching EastEnders orNeighbours are honing one’s empathetic abilities.

Johnson delves into the murky world of internet fan sites devoted to TV shows to illustrate his point. The analyses of The Apprentice he reproduces may be poorly spelled and ungrammatical, nevertheless they exhibit a level of analysis and engagement one simply couldn’t have with I Love Lucy. The complexity and self-referentiality of today’s television shows may be driven to some degree by commercial considerations. The real money these days is in syndication rights and DVD sales, and making your shows “meatier” in the sense of more cognitively demanding is one way of ensuring the stickiness that leads to repeated viewing.

In a book I expected to be full of absurdities, there is only one outright bizarre passage, in which Johnson tried to claim, contra theclaims of Neil Postman amongst others, that television’s deleterious effects on politics are not so deleterious after all. Here Johnson over-reaches:

So what we’re getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia, it’s crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential President, information we had almost no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus.Reading the transcript of the Lincoln-Douglas debates certainly conveyed the agility of both men’s minds, and the ideological differences that separated them. But I suspect they conveyed almost no information about how either man would run a cabinet meeting, or what kind of loyalty they inspired in their followers, or how they would resolve an internal dispute. Thirty minutes on a talk show, on the other hand, might well convey all that information – because our brains are so adept at picking up those emotional cues.

This is a fancy way of putting Wilde’s dictum that only a very superficial person doesn’t judge by appearances. To those who observed that Nixon largely lost the Nixon-Kennedy debates on television (radio listeners and readers of the transcripts felt Nixon had won) for purely cosmetic reasons, Johnson replies, well, wasn’t Nixon proved shifty and untrustworthy in the end? To which it could be replied that JFK was no saint and perhaps simply a more successful liar than Nixon.

What basis is there to Johnson’s optimism? Essentially, his wager is based on the Flynn effect. James Flynn is a philosopher and civil-rights activist who, despite not having professional training in statistics or intelligence testing, decided to try and refute the work of Arthur Jensen. Jensen had published studies purporting to show a gap – separate from differences attributable to educational attainment or socio-economic status – between white and black people’s IQ scores. When he examined military records, he found a dramatic increase in blacks’ IQ scores throughout the century. Not only that, but whites’ scores were also improving, at nearly the same rate. Because IQ tests are normalised so the average person gets a score of 100, every few years the IQ mavens were adjusting their tests, thereby gradually – and unconsciously – increasing the difficulty of the tests.

What underlay this increase? Johnson dismisses improved nutritional or educational standards as an explanation, or increased familiarity with the tests (which, for a variety of reasons, are administered far less than they used to be). To those who charge that IQ tests are culture-specific anyway, he replies that tests such as Raven’sProgressive Matrices and other non-verbal, non-numerical tests that purport at any rate to measure g or general intelligence that are showing the greatest increase. The skills involved in Raven’s Progressive Matrices are exactly those of Tetris, the wildly popular computer game-cum-puzzle.

The New Criterion reviewer presented a whole series of educational statistics that are much more worrying than the Flynn Effect. Johnson acknowledges some of this; for instance that American schoolchildren’s knowledge of history and geography is grievously deficient despite the popularity of Sim City. He acknowledges, also, that the printed word is the best medium for communicating complex ideas, or any message of any length. Despite the fact that the internet is mainly used for verbal communication – email, instant messaging, blogging are all based firmly on the primacy of logos – it is verbal communication in small, usually shallow bursts. As an aside, one wonders if any work has been done on the length of a written piece posted on the internet, beyond which attention wanders and one really has to hit CTRL P to get any further benefit. I would hazard a guess that it is around the length of the average piece on this site.

It is interesting that, the Flynn effect aside, Johnson does not have a huge amount of hard statistical data to back up his claims. There’s a study that shows that regular computer gamers are, actually, more rather than less socially adept.

The crucial flaw is that to make his arguments, Johnson explicitly takes content out of the equation. It makes no difference, he argues, that the plot of the game Zelda, to give one of many possible examples, is a frankly silly confection of fantasy tropes and motifs. What matters is the cognitive work involved.

Content is the eight hundred pound gorilla which Johnson has magicked out of the room. Cognitive demands are all very well, but who really thinks that they are the measure of all things? Computer games, as Johnson admits, are all very well for creating worlds one can submerge oneself in, but not much good at storytelling beyond the most elemental and pre-adolescent level. His book is thought-provoking and far less blindly Panglossian than one would expect, nevertheless it has a sort of hole in its soul. Far more than the statistical bones one could no doubt pick with Johnson, this is the real flaw.

If Johnson is animated by anything, it is opposition to the George Will quote alluded to above which is one of the books epigraphs. In full, it reads:

Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments. And in an increasingly infantilised society, whose moral philosophy is reducible to a celebration of “choice”, adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainment and the kinds of entertainment they are absorbed in – video games, computer games, hand-held games, movies on their computers and so on. This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.

Johnson feels, I think, that he has fairly comprehensively demolished Will’s claim by the end of the book:

It’s crucial that we abandon the Brave New Worldscenario where mindless entertainment always wins out over more challenging fare, that we do away once and for all with George Will’s vision of an “increasingly infantilised society”.

But he has not argued with Will’s point. He has simply suggested – persuasively and entertainingly – that modern popular culture is more cognitively challenging than that of other years. In some ways the book illustrates Will’s point: we now have immensely more sophisticated delivery of … well, whatever you want to dub the content of modern popular culture. Johnson does not really have much to say on the “moral philosophy” of society. Performance on Raven’s Progressive Matrices in not perhaps the measure of all things.

For all that, it is a stimulating, provoking book which is entertainingly written in the deceptively colloquial style of writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks. I recommend it to all readers of the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, even (especially?) those who hate the very thought of it.

One final caveat. Dr Dalrymple of this parish has often written of the oft-disastrous trickling down of antinominian ideas among intellectuals to the general population, often losing whatever subtlety and perhaps utility they may have possessed to begin with. One fears that the debased version of Johnson’s thesis is what will get out there, that people who will never read the book will understand from the press coverage that someone has proved that, after all, a mental diet of hot fudge and ice-cream is a healthy one. Along with the Will quote, Johnson uses as an epigraph the following exchange from Woody Allen’s Sleeper:

Scientist A: “Has he asked for anything special?”Scientist B: “Yes, why, for breakfast … he requested something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk”.

Scientist A: “Oh, yes, those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties”.

Scientist B: “You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or … hot fudge?”

Scientist A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.