The use of the phrase “a curriculum of proper knowledge consumption” carries with it many possible implied judgments or meanings. But by breaking it down into individual terms, understanding what the curriculum as a whole brings with it becomes easier.
While the number of media messages to which we are exposed on a daily basis is shocking, the use of the term “consumption” here refers to the conscious ingestion of those messages which we have sought out or which have been presented to us — directly or indirectly. During interactions with media or other individuals, we are presented with information — whether or not we synthesize this information into knowledge is a choice made by us, the consumers. To be sure, there may be curricula which are concerned with the countless subliminal messages which our minds process throughout the day. This particular curriculum, however, teaches that consideration should be given to the motives and perspectives of those who produce and transmit the information being consumed. As this is not possible with media consumed subconsciously, the curriculum focuses on the media we read, listen to, or watch, as well as the conversations we have with one another — that is, the information we consciously consume and synthesize into knowledge.
In his 2012 book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, Clay Johnson asserts that the concept of “information overload,” about which the likes of Postman and Carr have theorized, is
non-existent. Rather, he argues, consumers are to blame for actively ingesting too much information into their brains.
Information is no more autonomous than fried chicken, and it has no ability to force you to do anything as long as you are aware of how it affects you. . . . It’s not the total amount of information, but your information habit that is pushing you to whatever extreme you find uncomfortable” (25).
While Johnson’s belief that a consciousness regarding how information affects an individual is certainly on the right track, he too quickly ignores two important notions: that it is difficult for us, as humans, to block out the multitude of stimuli feeding us information (Novak); and that the media industry is predicated on the craft of making sure that messages are seen and processed. Thus the focus here will remain on consumed knowledge — information that has been consciously synthesized.
Considering “knowledge consumption” as a single unit within the curriculum title, rather than two separate elements, allows for the two words to inform one another more clearly. But it also provides some clarity when trying to understand the context of the use of proper in the curriculum title — that is, the goal of this curriculum is to teach the proper consumption of knowledge, not the consumption of proper knowledge.
Defining proper knowledge consumption takes into account the philosophical basis presented in the previous chapter: a consideration that humanity deserves the opportunity for thorough reflection, something unattainable with Technopoly’s emphasis on brevity and speed. The synthesis of information into knowledge is not the same as reflection. The former indicates that information is being combined into something new — knowledge — while the latter is characterized by a consideration and critique of the knowledge consumed. This difference further underlines the importance of the addition of the adjective “proper” when titling the curriculum.
Further, proper knowledge consumption acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of any given communication. This recognition is often jettisoned by the technique-happy actors of Technopoly; taking into consideration bias, motive, multiple viewpoints, and the like, is both time consuming and complicated. After all, as Frederick W. Taylor notes (as cited by Postman), “subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking” (51). Seeking Taylor’s clear thinking, on the other hand, wrongly empowers the producer of communication as to easily “right” or “truthful.”
Given this, it is important that “teachers” of the curriculum not only customize the content to their goals, but also imperative that they offer their audiences an elaboration on the values and motives driving this customization. The viewers of work produced through a curriculum of proper knowledge consumption should be given the opportunity to understand the perspective, influences, and reasons behind the construction of such a curriculum.
Finally, the term curriculum is used in order to imply a teaching opportunity — one that is built on the belief that any elucidation of the dangers of Technopoly will inspire a more critically consuming public. This opportunity may present itself in an academic setting, but it will also exist outside. Writers, artists, and community and activist leaders, for instance, all operate in societal institutions with audiences who may be easily empowered with the awareness of Technopolian forces.
Building this awareness, notes Postman, would mean “reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity” (183). Pairing a philosophical basis (outlined in the previous chapter) with the prescribed methodology described below should lead to the creation of a set of lessons working towards a common goal. As “lesson” is too specific, and “philosophy” too generic, the term “curriculum” properly represents this collection of pedagogical guidelines and tools.
But making aware Technopolian concerns to any individual would require a curriculum born of the paradoxical struggle between taking advantage of the tools, channels, and media available today and illustrating the dangers associated with the flow of influence emanating from those same tools, channels, and media. This friction is apparent in Vilém Flusser’s career: he used his expertise as an engineer in order to enlighten other engineers to the philosophical considerations related to their field. As such, a brief analysis of his writing will inform the methods recommended for the enactment of the curriculum.
Flusser’s Towards A Philosophy Of Photography presents “an attempt to sum up the essential quality of photography” (76). Breaking the field down into “image — apparatus — program — information”, the media philosopher critiques the ways in which we produce and read imagery, specifically “technical images”: images that, Flusser notes, are abstractions of texts, which are themselves abstractions of the imagery that represents the world itself. These technical images have been accepted as objective representations of this same world, however, leading “whoever looks at them to see them not as images but as windows” (15).
Flusser’s argument asserts that this same trust is placed in photographs — images created by the camera which has been programmed to create these images in a certain manner. The program is structured to serve the purposes of the camera itself, providing “for the realization of its capabilities and, in the process, for the use of society as a feedback mechanism for its progressive improvement” (46). In this programming, Flusser is aligned with Robin Greeley, Nicholas Garnham, and Postman when he notes that
there are further programs behind this one (that of the photographic industry, of the industrial complex, of the socio-economic apparatuses), through the entire hierarchy of which there flows the enormous intention of programming society to act in the interests of the progressive improvement of the apparatuses (46).
This personification of the camera driven by a motive to gather feedback from the photographer (thus “using” society for its own purposes), raises the question of what role the photographer actually plays: is she using the camera or is it using her? Flusser notes that the relationship between the user and the apparatus is, generally, a cooperative one. He goes on, however, to ask: “‘How far have photographers succeeded in subordinating the camera’s program to their own intentions, and by what means?’ And, vice versa: ‘How far has the camera succeeded in redirecting the photographers’ intentions back to the interests of the camera’s program?’” (47). Flusser adds that the stronger photographs are those in which the photographer has subordinated the camera.
Writing Towards A Philosophy Of Photography in 1983, Flusser saw photography at the time as representative of the transition into a post-industrial world in which the apparatus was produced by strong social forces no longer taking the human into consideration (von Amelunxen 92). Bearing in mind his history as both an engineer and a philosopher, it is no surprise that he struggled with the changing physicality of the tools being produced and disseminated throughout society: “Their intention is not to change the world but to change the meaning of the world” (25). It is important to recognize that Flusser’s use of “camera” and “apparatus” throughout his work is not meant to imply that his argument applies only to the hand-held device. In fact, the implications of the apparatus’ prominence have already been illuminated in this document through a review of Postman (and others) via the concept of Technopoly. Flusser’s elaboration on what it means for a photographer to subordinate the camera, however, is where Towards A Philosophy Of Photography provides the strongest value to any curriculum meant to work against that Technopoly.
In the book’s final chapter, Flusser writes of the “experimental photographer” who is “conscious that image, apparatus, program and information [emphasis his] are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with” (81). These are photographers who are consciously playing against the camera, actively trying to break the program set for them by the programmers of the apparatus. Flusser is skeptical that these photographers know that their experimental approach attempts “to address the question of freedom in the context of apparatus in general” (81), but he is confident that by doing so, they will break open an opportunity for the ultimate goal: “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated, programmed and programming apparatuses” (81).
As media theorist Hubertus von Amelunxen notes in the afterward to Towards A Philosophy Of Photography, when Flusser suggests that experimental photographers must play against the program after becoming conscious of it, he is, in effect, instructing them to counter-program the apparatus (90). It is this counter-program that must inform the curriculum here — after all, the purpose of the curriculum is to inspire the kind of knowledge consumption that will subsequently create the place for human freedom for which Flusser calls. What, then, are the steps to constructing this counter-program?
Counter-Programming The Apparatus
In order to build a counter-program, strong consideration must first be given to the current program: what apparatuses have significant influence over our everyday decisions? What is the camera which we seek to counter-program today? What is the mode in which we operate using a specific apparatus? What are the steps taken by any range of actors to bring us to this point? And what are the consequences of the decisions made by those actors, including ourselves? In the case of the curriculum of proper knowledge consumption, the content of the first four chapters of this document present a thorough outline of our current program: a Technopolian society where the trust placed in the technological and the scientific leaves humans at the mercy of those doing the programming and without the opportunity for reflection.
Elucidating these observations effectively becomes problematic when the strength and trajectory of those forces are not taken into consideration. By acknowledging resistances to critiquing society’s apparatus du jour, for instance, respect is paid to the inertia of the program associated with that apparatus. But this trajectory also provides guidance on where to take the new version of the program: down the path on which it is already traveling, as interpreted by its critical observers, the counter-programmers.
Fiction is a tool which has aided this author, in particular, in the process of developing a counter-program. Having established the non-fiction — a historical observation and interpretation of the path traveled to this point — speculating on the next phase of “progress” provides a recontextualization of the features — the perceived “benefits” — of the apparatus. “Fiction,” writes philosopher Jacques Ranciére, “means undoing and rearticulating connections between signs and images, images and times, or signs and space that frame the existing sense of reality . . . new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done” (49).
But fiction alone does not a counter-program make. A trajectory that predicts, for instance, the next logical step in an apparatus’ development may seem reasonable to both an executor and consumer of a curriculum, but by blending in well to the current path of that same apparatus, there is no opportunity for the criticality required to break the program. As National Book Award winning speculative fiction author M.T. Anderson notes, “if you know exactly the answers, then why write fiction?” Rather, considering an amalgam of absurdity and satire may push the questions asked into the realm of the unreasonable — breaking the program on a meta-level by shifting the conversation with “an even more ontologically confusing argument” (Anderson). What is sought is a program designed to interfere with society’s blind acceptance of the apparatus.
Neil Postman offers that “we must also join the past and the present, for the ascent of humanity is above all a continuous story” (187). Certainly, the historical perspective is an important one. But a singular focus on the past leaves open the opportunity to debate so-called facts. By projecting the apparatus into the future, however — by infusing absurdity and satire into predictions about where its programs are taking society, more questions are raised than answers are provided — producing the perfect environment for awareness and discussion.
Design As Research
In their review of the benefits of what they call “arts based research,” Tom Barone and Elliot Eisner call out traditional research texts as lacking “certain aesthetic design elements that work towards a powerful transmutation of feelings, thoughts, and images” (96). Often, they note, these texts are focused on proving an argument. Arts based research tools, however, are “not aimed towards the quest for certainty. [Their] purpose may instead be described as the enhancement of perspective [emphasis theirs]” (96).
The implementation of a curriculum of proper knowledge consumption based on the speculative design method moves important concepts such as Technopoly and the informationalized society beyond the formal language of the academic. By utilizing the same apparatus that it seeks to critique, the curriculum presented seeks to bring these concepts into the common lexicon by co-opting the language of the mainstream — one that is, today, based on the same values as the forces of capital and the technologies upon which they act: objectivity, fact, proof, benefit, and other seemingly “neutral” concepts.
To be certain, this language does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is propagated through the channels and media with which the perpetuators of Technopoly sell their wares — product packaging, marketing materials, sales pitches, advertisements, and, most importantly, the programming of the product itself (be it analog or digital). At the helm of these channels sits the designer, trained to question critically the situation in order to design a final product or campaign that best addresses the needs of those seeking her expertise. As well intentioned or conscientious as our designer may be, however, as Robin Greeley offers, there is no escaping “that intricate web of social structures and practices within which the designer’s conscious — and unconscious — decisions are made as to which set of forms will carry what significations” (22). There is no neutrality of production, no program-less apparatus.
Fortunately, this lack of neutrality is that upon which the curriculum of proper knowledge consumption is based. In encouraging a designed approach to the final products of the curriculum, it is taking advantage of the same sets of questioning skills and craft used to design and develop the apparatus
— a device designed to obtain its users’ attention to begin with — and doing so in order to teach a similar lesson as a formally presented argument. In participating in the act of design as research, the hope is that the concepts of the curriculum will be given stronger consideration.
“To chart the ascent of man,” notes Neil Postman, “we must join art and science” (187). The curriculum of proper knowledge consumption builds this bridge by encouraging the use of our technological advances for the elucidation of the forces acting on our social institutions today, be they academic, religious, governmental, or otherwise. It constructs, too, the bridge modeled by combining the teachings of Postman’s Technopoly and Vilém Flusser’s Philosophy: from the exploration of societal forces through a theoretical framework, to a critique of those same forces with a conceptualization using a consumer device. But following these two theorists’ line of analysis lands one at a place that feels just short of the bridge’s connection to the shoreline. The curriculum outlined here is an attempt at finishing the bridge, providing a recommended method for teaching these lessons.
This is not to imply, of course, that the proposed curriculum is the be-all and end-all to breaking through the programming forces of Technopoly. There are further questions to be answered: where should a curriculum such as this be implemented? The academy is an obvious option, but one which may result in further insulating the issues considered inside the protective academic “bubble.” Perhaps new channels — ones only made possible by our new technologies, the same technologies being acted on — should be embraced. Further, at what point does the level of absurdity and satire of the curriculum reach a breaking point, completely alienating its “students”? These questions and many others should be considered as the curriculum is implemented.
Nevertheless, as the forces of Technopoly and its actors become stronger, and the lessons taught by the likes of Postman and Flusser are jettisoned in favor of ones that embrace brevity and speed, it will be on the shoulders of the individual consumer of knowledge to consider these forces. But she will not be made aware of them without the opening up for, as Flusser puts it, “a space for freedom” — a counter-programming of the apparatus, a philosophy, he argues, that “is the only form of revolution left open to us” (82). It is,
perhaps, no coincidence, then, that Postman, in proposing a strong role for education in fighting Technopoly, paraphrases Lawrence Cremin when he notes, “whenever we need a revolution, we get a new curriculum” (185) — a curriculum, in this case, of proper knowledge consumption.
When Neil Postman made his observations over 20 years ago, he had no ability to foresee the force with which Technopoly would make its way through today’s society. But he did understand its trajectory at the time and was confident that it would be difficult to counteract. Even as he presents his recommendations for building a plan of resistance, he notes that he has “no illusions that such an educational program can bring a halt to the thrust of a technological thought-world” (199). Still, Postman’s critique is invaluable to those seeking to understand the changes occurring to our social institutions.
A review of today’s communication technologies reveals only some of the ways in which capital changes the values driving the design of our new systems and tools. Our world must be forever faster and more popular. It must be easily consumable and always “true.” And, of course, it must be profitable. Our progress has been imbued so deeply with an emphasis on speed and brevity that our transformations occur at an alarming rate. We are rapidly losing our opportunity for the kind of reflection that allows us to be amazed by this world.
Attempting to influence those who are building this world — the next generation of designers, “transformers,” developers, writers, and so on — is a good place to start, but not if they are being told that they should (or even, can) produce “objectively” or from a neutral perspective. Rather, all members of society must understand that what they see, read, buy, or otherwise consume, is being acted upon by the forces of Technopoly. They should realize that the apparatus seeks to execute a program that may not have their best interests in mind.
This realization comes only once the values of capital are taken in and turned around, exaggerated, projected, and instilled with satire and absurdity — all in the name of envisioning new trajectories, fictional places rich with criticality and questioning. Only then will our next generation of consumers have their eyes opened to the forces of Technopoly, eventually moving to consider how to slow its thrust.