As someone who is a bit sports obsessed, I am going to miss the Olympics. Thanks to DVR I stayed up late nearly every night for the last two weeks watching even sports that most people only care about every four years. My new favorite athlete is Missy Franklin. Not to sound too unpatriotic, but my favorite Olympic moment was Mexico winning the gold medal in men's soccer. People in Mexico will remember their win over futbol-super-power Brazil the way Americans remember Lake Placid's "Miracle on Ice."
For some reason, watching the olympics made me think a lot about the late Neil Postman. I met Neil almost 20 years ago at a retreat on technology and faith when I was working on my dissertation. Neil taught for many years at NYU in an area he liked to refer to as "Media Ecology." He's probably most famous for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business which lamented what he saw as the dumbing down of Western culture as it transitioned out of the literate age and into the video/technological age.
At the retreat he read the amazing introduction to the book he was working on at the time (and my favorite book of his) called The End of Education. (I love Amusing Ourselves... but the lesser-known The End of Education and a book entitled The Disappearance of Childhood are my favorites). We ended up in a small group together over the weekend, and for some reason he kind of liked me and so we ate a few meals together over the weekend and corresponed a few times in the years that followed. Neil was a crusty, sometimes crass, stereo-typical New Yorker, but I really liked him personally.
I thought about him during the olympics because of what he would so often say about the nature of television. Borrowing the famous line by Marshall McLuhan, Neil would often lament that when it comes to TV "the medium is the message." Television by nature is good at some things but not so good at others. In particular Neil thought sports made for great television. Sports are usually fast-paced, filled with drama, often has unexpected endings (just ask McKayla Maroney), and is completely unscripted. In other words, its primarily entertaining and relatively unimportant.
And there is no question that the London olympics made for great television. Even when I knew the outcome ahead of time (thanks a lot espn.com and yahoo.com!!), I still found myself jumping off the couch with excitement.
But then I would see the political ads that frequently ran inbetween the events and I'd be reminded of what Neil feared about television - it's effect on social discourse. Politics, Neil believed, made for terrible TV. Not because it couldn't be exciting, but because television, by nature, has to be entertaining to be good. Because that is the case, he knew that careful, thoughtful social discourse would make for horrible television (just try watching CSPAN). Therefore, Postman beleived that politics in a technological age would increasingly be about sound-bites, personal appearance, and the manipulation of the truth in easy ways. In other words, the most important social conversations a culture can have - because they have to make for good TV - would inevitably become trivial. The medium is the message.
In Amusing, Neil compares the careful, thoughful, WRITTEN debates between Lincoln and Douglas from the print dominated 19th century, to the short, sound-bite, talking-points oriented political debates that will fill our television screens for the next several months here in the twenty-first. He didn't like the comparison:
If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to prusue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising... The point is that television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by "better" such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable aabout international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with "image"... For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience and image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences fo the television commerical on political discourse. - Amusing Ourselves to Death (p. 126,133-134).
So I'm sorry to see one set of games come to an end. But let the other (and unfortunately much more serious) games begin!