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Living in the “Comm-Ent Complex”

I know what it feels like to be prescient.

The Communications and Entertainment industries are merging, under our noses, without much notice. This convergence will have a monumental impact not only on these industries but upon society as a whole.

I wrote that in early 1981 for a business school essay called “the Comm-Ent Complex,” Now that is blindingly obvious, but then, I may have been on to something. I noticed these industries were bleeding into each other, the communications industry (publishing and journalism) and the entertainment industry (theatre, music, dance, and other performing arts). The media technology supporting both industries (print, radio, TV, film, audio, and visual recordings) drove the combination.

I traced the history of this melding from the “Yellow Journalism” of the Hearst papers, through the introduction of radio and television, to the introduction of advertising to the news in the 1960s. And made the point:

I predicted societal impact because of the Industry organizing principles, and the central questions asked of each audience differ radically.:

  • In receiving communications – news, and journalism – the audience asks, “Is this true? What evidence supports this assertion?”
  • In receiving entertainment we look for “theatrical truth.” “Does it “ring true.” “Can I suspend my disbelief? Does it engage and amuse me? Does it hold my attention?”

In any merger, one side’s values win.  Entertainment’s values (‘does it amuse?’ and ‘how many watched?’) are winning.

I identified many impacts:

Comm-Ent products (content) vary by audience. Daily News to New York Times. vaudeville to Broadway.

Comm-Ent products intend to make money. The arts snobbishly prefer narrow market content over mass-market content – paintings over print, live performance over records. Because Comm-Ent is driven by mass-market technology there is a bias for mass-market profit.

Comm-Ent and celebrity go together. Celebrity will be used in business. I wrote in Britain during the run-up to the royal wedding of Prince Charles, and Diana Spencer. Plates and cups with their pictures were everywhere. I gave many other examples of celebrity-branded products, Ty Cobb tobacco, and Mark Twain pens.

Humor is used as Comm-Ent glue and a catalyst. Speakers have always “opened with a joke.”  But now the nightly news is laced with puns and stand-up comedians MC the Oscars and the Correspondents Dinner.

Comm-Ent has an unavoidable impact on politics. In 1980, America elected actor Ronald Reagan as president, not the first or last performer-politician.

The professor thought my essay had “publishing potential. If cleaned up a little.:

In 1985, my Comm-Ent publishing plan hit a snag when Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a thoroughly researched, powerful argument.

What I called the organizing principles he more elegantly describes as the “media metaphor” that frames the world.

Dr. Postman posited that the new media metaphor was “visually rich short stories interrupted by commercials; these combine to short-circuit depth of thought inherent in the printed word”. He compared the content model to “vaudeville, a vapid review of disconnected acts with no narrative thread.” Even the news is delivered in unrelated thirty- to ninety-second bursts –“And now…this.”

The book goes on to describe the pernicious impact of the show business metaphor on:

Religion – the loss of ritual and community and television’s natural corruptibility of evangelism.

Politics – “Performance over content.” He gives examples: Nixon’s wardrobe and makeup failure in the 1960 debate with Kennedy caused his loss of that debate and the election. Postman also cites the election of Ronald Reagan.

Education – the loss of attention span and coherent discourse encouraged by even “good programming” like Sesame Street.

Dr. Postman closes with a warning. America will not fall to totalitarian forces as imagined by George Orwell in 1984, but rather by the self-administered oblivion seen in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Television was Soma, Huxley’s numbing narcotic that made external control unnecessary.

Talk about feeling prescient.

Neil Postman died in 2003, so he didn’t endure the rise of twenty-four-hour cable news, reality TV, and news parodies where a generation gets its news. The phenomenon he described lives on, now called “infotainment.”

Infotainment

Dr. Postman never used the word infotainment, which has become the shorthand for this phenomenon. The word infotainment first appeared in the early 1980s describing thirty-minute-long commercials and as a pejorative for “soft news,” human interest stories assigned to women journalists and cub reporters. Today the word is often used to describe the automobile display that includes a GPS screen, radio, music player, phone controls, and Internet connection.

Fortunately, Dr. Postman also missed the growth of the Internet and the smartphone, which have exacerbated the problems he observed.

How the Internet Accelerated Comm-Ent

In 2011, Nicholas G. Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Carr states that a medium can alter not only the message but the entire process of thinking behind it. Unlike Postman, Carr’s bugaboo isn’t television, but the Internet.

The book grew from a 2008 Atlantic article “Is Goggle making us stupid?” A quote from the tenth-anniversary edition encapsulates his argument:

In a 2010 Pew Research survey of some 400 prominent thinkers, more than 80% agreed that by 2020, people’s use of the Internet [will have] enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices.

The year 2020 has arrived. We’re not smarter. We’re not making better choices.

Carr discusses the structure and function of the brain as the reasons for these changes. There are a hundred billion neurons that communicate with each other by way of electrical impulses or synapses. Each synapse represents a neural pathway carved into brain tissue.

Carr shows how these neural pathways are the basis of deep thought and rationality The adult brain makes changes quite easily – a process called neuroplasticity – but with every change existing pathways fall into disuse. The individual becomes easily distracted and has knowledge superficially broad but less deep and less functional. In addition to the Internet itself, Carr identifies the distractions of hypertext and “always-on” email and other apps.

What started as information technology quickly morphed into entertainment..

“What Hath God Wrought?” – The Effects of Comm-Ent

“What hath God wrought?” is the biblical phrase Samuel Morse first telegraphed in Morse code on May 25, 1844. It was proof of concept for the telegraph and arguably the first message of Comm-Ent. The effects continue to transform people, our thinking, our politics, and our society.

I have had a front-row seat for the Comm-Ent transformation so far, by virtue of being the son of a printer and a computer programmer; a Comm-Ent worker – actor, booking agent, now writer and songwriter.. I don’t put myself forward as a Comm-Ent wise man, just someone who has been observing this phenomenon for a while. The effects I have seen include:

The change in the media metaphor, or organizing principle, from “Is this true?” to “Does it engage, amuse, suspend my disbelief?”

Fragmentation of thought. Nicholas Carr calls this the “juggler’s brain” and notes that the ease of distraction carries with it the attending danger of mental manipulation.

Increase in screen time. Carr reports that between 2005 and 2009 each American went from six hours per week online to twelve, and TV time remained constant. Now computers, phones, and TV account for nine hours and forty-five minutes per day on average. No doubt some of that is productive time and some is turning our brains to mush.

CommEnt products can be addictive. Carr quotes 2020 research on this subject, but do we really need research? How many families have a no-phones-at-the-dinner-table rule. How many companies have outlawed TikTok and Minecraft on their servers?

Gamification is the latest trend. Some companies use video games as a marketing tool.

China created a game to inculcate values and reinforce desired behaviors into its populations. Citizens sign up for a computer-monitored game where they win points for good behavior and lose points for bad behavior, including associating with people who flout rules e.g., jaywalkers. This is gamified social engineering mixed with surveillance.

On the lighter side – but still troubling – is a site to convert your morning exercise into a virtual reality game where you outrun zombies..

What is on the screen isn’t real. Once we have suspended our disbelief, it is far too easy to assume that what we see on a screen is true.

Disinformation campaigns on Facebook and Twitter have had a huge impact on politics. Conspiracy theories go electronically “viral,” more so than they ever did in print. There are people who don’t realize that reality TV programs are scripted-conflict melodramas.

But it goes further. The screen deludes you to believe what you are looking at is real.

When I was a consultant working with an oil company I attended online meetings between offshore platform managers and technical specialists who were onshore, a video conference like Zoom, but using screens that filled an entire wall.

The offshore platform manager was frustrated. One of his wells had “sanded out,” which happens when the pressure from the undersea oil reservoir slackens and seabed sand pours into the wellhead. A major well was offline; it would require repair or re-drilling, an enormous expense in time and money. The reservoir technical analyst spoke.

“Look, there’s no use getting upset. I knew that might happen, but I couldn’t say when. You have eight wells in that field that are in danger of sanding out at any given time.”

WHAT?!” You could see the platform manager’s anger rising as he moved so close to the camera he looked about to come through and strangle the reservoir tech. ”You knew?!”

Listen, I’m looking at the reservoir right now and can see these wells where the pressure is low enough to sand out, but there is no way to predict whether or when they’ll fail.”

With respect,” lied the crimson face now taking up the whole screen, spitting through his clenched British-expat teeth, “With respect, you are looking at a computer model! If you look behind me out that window, you can see the actual well. If I know the wells are in danger I can visually inspect and stop a sandout before it happens!”

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Alan Culler
Alan Cullerhttps://wisdomfromunusualplaces.com/
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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6 CONVERSATIONS

  1. What a powerful post! This is a real good read and there is a lot one can agree with.
    Our society is increasingly dependent on information and communication technologies, both for its functioning and for its development. A growing number of people spend their entire adult life connected to tools such as social networks, e-mail, the World Wide Web, investing, in addition to economic resources (purchase of phones, tablets, computers, telephone credit, etc.) , and above all, an important resource for everyone: their time.
    Perhaps if there is an addiction, it is not on technology, but on the mental habits that technology allows us to have. The machines, which we invented to save us time with their applications, are taking it all back, and perhaps even more.

    • Thank you, Aldo, for reading and engaging.
      I’m now one of those people who “spend their entire adult life connected to tools” – some of it valuable, some not so much/

      I do think it is useful to train ourselves to use these tools more effectively.

      My mother was a math whiz who could do compound interest problems in her head. She encouraged my NOT to use a calculator. “That thing will rot your brain!”

      One day I caught myself dividing a figure by 10 on the calculator. Ske was right.

      Thanks again for your insight.
      Alan

  2. Excellent piece, Alan.

    I believe Tim Wu’s The Master Switch describes another aspect of the same problem: How those who used to supply the logistics for transporting info-whatever at one point decide to deliver content as well. Cue Netflix and Amazon in-house productions.

    Nothing remotely nuanced can be delivered in 20 sec soundbites.

    Your statistics are downright scary. While I accept that work and productive interpersonal meetings (Friendshipbench and other) is part of screen time, what has been taken away when screen time goes up? Free play and presence with the people we love.

    • Hi Charlotte
      Thanks for your comment here.
      Yes there are a small number of companies that control what we see and hear. Everyone wants to make content. The days of someone managing the pipes and someone creating what runs through them are over.

      Is it ripe for those with an agenda? I think so.

      Of course, not everything is a big conspiracy to dumb down the masses so the oligarchs can rule.

      Or is it?

      Thanks again.
      Alan

  3. Brother Ali
    I’m in a fog today so it is unclear if we are becoming shallow, or I am becoine senile (See Nile -yes and I’d like to see the pyramids too.)

    I don’t think everything needs to be serious -or that we can’t be entertained, only that we might base our actions upon truth and not allow ourselves to be manipulated.

    Alan

  4. Brother Alan, fantastic elaboration on communication and its development with technological advances.

    I wonder with such huge interruptions if shallowness is increasing. You can see this in social gathering and in lecture rooms. People keep checking their mobiles discretely and indiscreetly.

    Have we entered the age of chaotic communication?.

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