Friday, September 17, 2010

Complexity and the Empire of Illusion

Chris Hedges discusses his recent book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. In it he offers an updated take on the argument advanced by Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) and Bill McKibbon (The Age of Missing Information), i.e., that modern media are fostering a set of cultural practices which are maladapted to dealing with the increasing complexity of our social and environmental problems.

This is a position that I think has some merit, but also significantly oversimplifies. The ability to deal with complex problems requires a combination of both a) deep thought, analysis and understanding of a phenomena and b) a breadth of perception and awareness in order to appreciate the wide variety and diverse nature of relevant facts and processes. Crudely put, modern media don't facilitate the first in the same way as print. But, the ability to link, connect and juxtapose ideas that aren't put together for you by the author is dramatically facilitated by new media. As such, the problem isn't the existence of new media but, rather, finding the appropriate cultural mix of the different forms. In this respect, I'm waiting expectantly for Stephen Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

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