The “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-amused audience.”

- Al Gore

See also excellent excerpt at by Stanford Law School by Colin Rule, posted on May 18, 2007 - 10:22am

About a speech by Al Gore "TV has made nation complacent, Gore says" - Knox News (Nov 2003) via Simple to Remember

The Assault on Reason

As has been well documented, the mainstream media (especially TV) has failed in it's duty to inform and educate (the run up to the Iraq war being the most extreme example). For example: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

For many commentators, the solution is for TV news to be reformed. After all, TV news is the main source of news for most Americans, if TV news could be improved, that would solve the problem of a misinformed electorate.

Al Gore, in his book The Assault on Reason, agrees with this reasoning, but he also goes further.  He argues that it isn't just the content of TV news that is the problem, but that it is TV itself (the medium) which is a  problem, because of it's one-way passive nature.

Mr. Gore also makes the argument that reading stimulates the intellect, while television (the medium) stimulates the emotions...with disastrous consequences for our Democracy.

Here are some quotes from the introduction:

"Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention—but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day—90 minutes more than the world average."

"In practice, what television’s dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters."

"...the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.  While American television watchers were collectively devoting 100 million hours of their lives each week to these and other similar stories, our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions on issues of war and peace, the global climate and human survival, freedom and barbarity, justice and fairness."

Al Gore begins his concluding paragraph with these words:

"The democratization of knowledge by the print medium brought the Enlightenment."

Personally I would go further, it wasn't just the spread of knowledge (from books) that brought about the Enlightenment, but the very act of reading itself (and it's spread throughout Europe) that encouraged abstract reasoning, logical thinking and the rise of Reason.

As documented here, reading (unlike TV) has an enormous positive effect on cognition.  TV viewers passively absorb all the moving shapes and sounds created for them in multi-million dollar studios.  Readers on the other hand, in addition to decoding the symbols on the page, are using their mind's eye to co-create with the author the dialog, sounds and images from the narrative.

This would explain why (according to this Scientific American article) people's dominant brainwaves actually slow down while watching TV. See also Brainwaves & TV

From The Assault on Reason (page 21):

Noticing sudden movement helped to alert the survivors to the presence of a predator, or to the nearness of prey, or to a potential mate. The ones who did notice passed on to us the genetic trait that neuroscientists call "the orienting response."  And that is the brain syndrome continuously activated by television - sometimes as frequently as once per second.  That is the reason the industry phrase glue eyeballs to the screen is actually more than a glib and idle boast.  It is also a major part of the reason Americans watch the TV screen an average of four and a half hours a day.

Once people become good readers, decoding the written word becomes automatic, hence the feeling of effortlessness and even passivity while reading (while in the background their brains are working furiously).  Watching TV can feel very active, just like a vivid dream can feel very intense, but even during vivid dreams ones brainwaves are working at the much slower Delta brainwave level.

In addition, the very act of decoding the written word involves logic, abstraction, and linear thinking:

From Death of Reading: 

For example, the following statements were presented to members of a mostly preliterate tribe in a remote area of the Soviet Union: "In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the far north, and there is always snow there." Then these people were asked what color the bears are in Novaya Zembla. A typical response, as reported by Father Walter Ong in his book "Orality and Literacy": "I don't know. I've seen a black bear. I've never seen any others. Each locality has its own animals." These people could not solve this simplest of logical problems.

It is not that such preliterate people are less intelligent than we are. They simply think differently -- "situationally." When words are written down, not just enunciated, they are freed from the subjective situations and experiences ("I've seen a black bear") in which they were imbedded. Written words can be played with, analyzed, rearranged and organized into categories (black bears, white bears, places where there is always snow). The correspondences, connections or contradictions among various statements can be carefully examined. As investigators such as Ong and anthropologist Jack Goody have explained, our system of logic -- our ability to find principles that apply independently of situations -- is a product of literacy. This logic, which goes back to the Egyptians, Hebrews and Greeks, led to mathematics and philosophy and history. Among its accomplishments is our culture.

And when written words are set in print, they gain additional powers. Our sentences grow even less connected to our persons as they are spelled out in the interchangeable letters of movable type. Our thoughts grow more abstract, more removed from the situations in which we happen to find ourselves. Superstitions, biases and legendary characters like dragons and kings have difficulty fitting into these straight, precise lines of type. Charts, maps and columns of figures can be duplicated exactly for the first time. According to seminal media theorist Marshall McLuhan and historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were both products of the printing press.

To become somewhat literate, a child or adult needs to read at least a million words. Over the course of a lifetime, an enthusiastic reader will read many, many millions more. This provides ample practice for logic, abstraction and rationality.

It is no coincidence that the spread of literacy brought about the Enlightenment and an end to Serfdom, and that television has brought about a weakening of our Democracy.

Again according to Al Gore:

From The Assault on Reason (page 6):

"...they [our founders] not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point—in the First Amendment—of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television."

From The Assault on Reason (page 7):

"The ability of television to instantly convey moving images as well as words and music to hundreds of millions of Americans simultaneously increased the impact and inherent power of the television medium over the printed word by several orders of magnitude."

From The Assault on Reason (page 8):

"Moreover, as advertisers quickly discovered, television's power to motivate changes in behavior was also unprecedented... The same phenomenon Galbraith noticed in the commercial marketplace is now the dominant fact of life in what used to be America's marketplace for ideas. The inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates for office is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based advertising campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. And the high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in American politics - and the influence of those who contribute it."

Al Gore wrote The Assault on Reason out of a sense of frustration that Americans were too passive and distracted to be willing to deal with the threat of Global Warming and the many other serious issues facing our nation.  He does hold out hope that Americans will seize on the potential of the internet to bring back a vibrant, well-informed citizenry. 

From The Assault on Reason (page 260):

"...the Internet is not just another platform for disseminating the truth.  It's a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services.  It's a platform, in other words, for reason.

Although Al Gore's book, The Assault on Reason touches on many of the problems of television, it is not a polemic against television.  In fact he believes that television (of a more interactive type) has an important role to play in a reinvigorated marketplace of ideas. I disagree. Nevertheless, The Assault on Reason is an amazing book, bringing together many disparate ideas to make a very compelling argument. (For example, the fascinating parallels between the eighteen century "marketplace of ideas" and today's "marketplace of idea" on the internet.)

Highly Recommended!

More excerpts at ABC News