Media’s Role in the Breakdown of Rational Epistemology
August 18, 2016
How do we know what we know? Philosophers have pondered this question from time immemorial. Julian Jaynes, in his classic book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, speculates that before the development of modern human consciousness, people believed they were informed by voices in their heads. Today, an alarming number of people are responding to voices on the Internet in similarly uncritical fashion.
As Jesuit scholar John Culkin pointed out in his seminal 1967 Saturday Review article, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” “We shape our tools and, thereafter, they shape us.” Examining history through this lens, one can identify seven great epochs in mankind’s intellectual and social evolution. Each is characterized by the way a new technology changed not only how we think about the world, but our actual thought processes. These are:
1) Spoken language, which first led to the primacy of mythology;
2) Written language, which bequeathed to us holy books and the world’s great religions;
3) The printing press, which spread literacy to the elites who went on to birth the nation state, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the U.S. Constitution;
4) The telegraph, which transformed pamphlets and broadsheets into modern newspapers, whose agenda-setting influence goaded America to “Remember the Maine” and become an imperialist power;
5) Radio, which placed broadcast propaganda at the service of central planners, progressives, and tyrants;
6) Television, which propelled the rising tide of the counterculture, environmentalism, and globalism; and
7) The Internet, a nascent global memory machine that puts the Library of Alexandria to shame, yet fits in everyone’s pocket.
At each transition, the older environment and way of thinking does not disappear. Rather, it adopts an extreme defensive crouch as it attempts to retain power over men’s minds. It is the transition from the Age of Television to the Age of the Internet that concerns us here, as it serves up an often-toxic brew of advocacy and click-bait journalism competing to feed the masses an avalanche of unverifiable information, often immune to factual or logical refutation.
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