Can Giraffes Be Saved?

“Now this.”

In 1985 Neil Postman identified this phrase as one of the indicators that news as an information vehicle had been swamped by TV as an entertainment medium.  How so?  Because “Now this” provides a seemingly sensible transition between unrelated bits in TV newscasts.

Canadian astronauts chosen for Space Station mission–Now this–
Children who eat pickles excel at hopscotch

His book-length diatribe, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” is a masterful piece of sustained rational discourse, the very thing Postman argued that TV militated against.  It requires the reader to follow a chain of reasoning, the very capacity that TV suppressed, according to Postman, by presenting us with unconnected information and with spurious connections, just by chance.

Attendance at summer festivals has risen appreciably in the last 10 years–Now this–Cancer death rates have dropped dramatically in the last decade

In the 30 years since I first read Postman, TV news hasn’t gotten any less bite-sized or any more connected.  And yet I can’t remember the last time I heard the once-ubiquitous “Now this.”  Instead, completely unconnected stories are now jammed head to tail without any separation by word, tone of voice, or facial expression.  Major stories might be demarcated by a new camera angle on the talking head.  Or not.

I have almost become inured to jumping from the global to the local, from politics to show business, from scientific studies to police reports, from health alarms to environmental alarms to celebrity news and back again with no warning and with no time for reflection.  Now this.  And this.  And this.

And yet (as I pause here for reflection), I find that my old-fashioned desire for coherence lives on; my unconscious expectation that adjacent ideas are somehow connected, persists; my editorial impulse to make that connection explicit, endures.  In the written word, this desire, expectation, and impulse are not usually problematic.

But the times, they are a-changin’ there too.

Due to the diversity of its subject matter, Smithsonian is my favourite magazine. Each issue covers topics such as archaeology, astronomy, life science, physical science, travel, art history, cultural history, and history history.  That the articles are unrelated is not a bug, it’s a feature.

But the good communications folks have started sending out emails with links to blurbs on topics as diverse as the magazine.  Each email comes with a teaser subject line listing the topics to which it links, turning my otherwise tidy inbox into a mess of spurious connections.

Do I exaggerate?  You be the judge.

Scientists Spot Near-by Earth-sized Planets, Can Giraffes be Saved?

A Town Where Every Resident Lives in the Same Building, Cuddling Sourdough Starters

Skywatchers Spot New Atmospheric Phenomenon, Changing Causes of Death in America

The Swashbuckling History of Women Pirates, The World’s Best Fungus Farmers

What Really Turned the Sahara Desert Into a Wasteland?, FDR’s Famous Ghostwriter

There are simple remedies for these confusing concatenations, but if inserting unambiguous visual breaks in the subject line seems too hard, I’m sure that TV newscasters wouldn’t mind donating “Now this” to the cause.  After all, they’re not using it.

This is how far we’ve gone down the path of disconnected discourse: the TV-newscast phrase decried by Neil Postman 30 years ago may now be our best hope for restoring a modicum of coherence to electronic communication.

There’s definitely a small chance we can still be saved, but I’m pretty sure the giraffes are hooped.

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Language and Communication, New Perspectives

8 Responses to Can Giraffes Be Saved?

  1. Isabel, you’re an information omnivore — and they’ve got your number.

    My favourite sentence re California, ever.
    “No matter how hot it gets in Los Angeles during the day, there is nothing to do at night.” –some comedian I think.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I see another list in someone’s future: Our favourite comments about places . . .

      • In my “Pitch Journal” on February 10th, I pitched a magazine:

        National Geographic, October 1986. Read “The Dutch Touch” article in which different cities are described in a few words, e.g., “Rotterdam = All Work and No Play, where ‘shirts are sold with the sleeves rolled up’.”

        • Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – There you go – nothing new under the sun. Of course, after 31 years, maybe we’re ready to take another look.

  2. Jim Robertson

    How right you are Isabel. “Now this” or something along that line is needed moreso these days. There is a local station that the newscaster frequently jumps from one story with no break, doesn’t take a breath and no change in tone…..

    Drives me nuts

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim R – Maybe it’s our older brains, trying to keep up, but I find the news ticker on the bottom of the TV does the same thing to me. Most blurbs are self-contained, but some take two blurbs, so I never know if they’ve swicthed gears on me.

  3. Jim Taylor

    Was it Oscar Wilde who said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? (I think perhaps he said “a foolish consistency” but never mind.) I must have a “little mind” because I find few things as irritating as inconsistency and incoherence — especially when people profess one thing, while demonstrating its opposite. E.g., espousing gender equality, while referring to “the little woman.” Preaching God’s unconditional love for all, while assuming that God hands out rewards and punishments. Or condemning all Muslims. Supporting environmental causes (and giraffes) while tossing aside their Tim Hortons’ coffee cups….
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” but quotation attribution is a task for specialists. And yes, the sort of inconsistency you describe is certainly worse than Emerson’s “foolish consistency.”