Home > Books, history, Learning, Reflections, Social media > The world is not atomized

The world is not atomized

To be clear, I DID IT, TOO

Several years ago, I briefly joined a Facebook group for administrators of inspirational pages. I was deeply discomfited by the group, members of which spent much more time talking about how to get more page and post likes than how to inspire people. The proper formula at that time was just the right quote pasted on just the right pretty picture; many admins were perturbed when sharing algorithms changed so that Facebook began sharing fewer pictures.

Troubled, I wrote that I didn’t feel inspiration resided in the number of people able to see a post. Maybe one person who really needed to see a post would see it, and than an “unsuccessful” post would’ve made a world of difference to that one person. The good it worked on them would ripple outward in lovely ways, so that a post’s reach would go far beyond what some statistic on Facebook revealed.

Each post I read there left me more unnerved. I couldn’t articulate the feeling then, but it was a sensation like: We’re putting numbers over people. This technology is turning us into marketers and targets, not humans engaging with other humans.

I left the group. I eventually left Facebook, too, and found myself better able to see human beings in all their splendor after doing so.

I was on and off Twitter. I even ended up deleting my Instagram account last November, after realizing that, too, was somehow messing up how I perceived real people. In December, I wrote in “Sunlight & friends“:

Something delightful happened after I deleted my Instagram account last month: I stopped thinking of my friends as the two-dimensional representations they share there, and started remembering them as who my heart knows them to be.

I hadn’t even realized I’d been boiling them down to their most superficial selves until I was no longer doing it.

Reading a copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business last week, I was floored to find old concerns addressed with such deference to history, present, and future. That’s to say, in 1985, a scholar I’d never heard of was publishing a book that’d help 2017 me begin to find words for things I felt silly for finding disturbing.

Postman explains how the advent of printed words changed human thinking and interaction. The telegraph then had the same impact, moving people from thinking of things within complex contexts to instead perceiving information in acontextual bursts of data. Visual print ads and then television again changed perceptions and thus societies of interconnected perceivers. Wrote Postman of how images dismember reality more than they represent them:

The way in which the photograph records experience is also different from the way of language. Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. In fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way. In a world of photographic images, Ms. Sontag writes, “all borders … seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: All that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” She is remarking on the capacity of photographs to perform a peculiar kind of dismembering of reality, a wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing of events and things that have no logical or historical connection with each other. Like telegraphy, photography recreates the world as a series of idiosyncratic events. There is no beginning, middle, or end in a world of photographs, as there is none implied by telegraphy. The world is atomized. There is only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be told.

While it raised many questions, the book clarified so much for me that I had my bookstore order copies of all other Postman books available to it. Two Postman books are still en route, but I picked up three yesterday. I began Technopoly this morning. Only a chapter in to this 1992 book, I’ve found so much to digest.

Looking at what history illuminates about technology, he wrote, “those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence.” In other words, “the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally. There are, as it were, winners and losers.”

Soon after, he wrote:

There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations.

“Holy crap!” I called to my husband after reading the above. “You can find the future in the past. It’s just different expressions of the same themes.”

As recently as a year ago, I rejected history as useful in understanding or navigating today. Today is today, after all, while tomorrow is tomorrow, and yesterday was yesterday. These things, I thought, had little to do with each other. As I read each little added slice of history Postman presented, I understand a little more clearly how wrong I was.

And, beginning to understand how interconnected are all things, I remember being a teenager reading The Holographic Universe while curled up on my church library’s couch. I remember very little of the book, save one factoid that seemed useless then … but quite intrinsic to everything, now. As written in this piece, “Every part of a hologram contains all the information possessed by the whole.” Here, in context:

Indeed, even if the halves are divided again, each snippet of film will always be found to contain a smaller but intact version of the original image. Unlike normal photographs, every part of a hologram contains all the information possessed by the whole.

The “whole in every part” nature of a hologram provides us with an entirely new way of understanding organization and order. For most of its history, Western science has labored under the bias that the best way to understand a physical phenomenon, whether a frog or an atom, is to dissect it and study its respective parts. 

A hologram teaches us that some things in the universe may not lend themselves to this approach. If we try to take apart something constructed holographically, we will not get the pieces of which it is made, we will only get smaller wholes.

The 1982 discovery that begins this piece found that “under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to instantaneously communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It doesn’t matter whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart.” More recently, reflecting–perhaps?–a different expression of the surprising, not necessarily intuitive connections between different aspects of the same universe, a physicist found “computer code embedded in string theory.”

Not even a year ago, I set out to begin understanding politics. I’d never cared before, nor seen any use in understanding it at more than the most superficial level. The more I’ve read in the last ten or eleven months, reading about politics, history, science, business, and whatever else has struck me, the more I’ve come to understand that these things are interwoven. Each is an artificially (human-)segmented expression of one universe built from the same pieces, which are connected in ways humans might not ever fully grasp.

No matter what photographs suggest to the human minds that have been shaped by them, the world is not as atomized as we misperceive. Human failure to apprehend or articulate this doesn’t change the basic structure of things, an idea I once captured in a proverb I included in a ninth grade social studies project: “He who does not believe in the ocean may nevertheless drown in it.”


  1. March 19, 2017 at 8:46 am

    I really appreciate the way you pointed out how these thoughts are really strung together. Maybe I didn’t say that right, but “The telegraph then had the same impact, moving people from thinking of things within complex contexts to instead perceiving information in acontextual bursts of data.” I do say: wow!

    • March 19, 2017 at 10:27 am

      “Wow” is still where I’m at, that this beaten copy of a paperback on what I thought would be one thing ended up being so much more. Anthony had read the book in college, and had been trying to find it in his room for a couple of months. I’m so glad he found a copy at the used bookstore! He was right that it would help me begin finding words for patterns I’d begun to see, but otherwise would’ve struggled to articulate for a long, long while.

      Reading Postman’s books is so warming. Somehow, it’s like sitting with a friend over a cup of coffee and getting both companionship and clearer comprehension from it. I’m so glad I have a few more books to read, and that Postman will be part of how I read all the books after that.

      This morning, I am so awed by … everything. ♥

  2. March 19, 2017 at 10:47 am

    I am enjoying reading what you’re reading and exploring through your eyes, then my own. Interesting posts this week! Thank you for sharing.

    Oh, and I’m Facebook-free for 90 weeks. It’s glorious.

    • March 21, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Isn’t it?! Once in a while, I think, “Maybe I could start a new account, strictly to be vaguely up on what local friends are doing … ” Within about four seconds, I’ve caught myself and think how much I’ll look forward to seeing them face-to-face, whenever it is we do that. 🙂

      Thank you, by the way. I’m thinking I need to slow my reading time and spend more time reflecting. I might have to write a bit on each book after I’ve read it, too, to help give me a chance to reflect and articulate strictly for myself. (My brain’s all awhirl after finishing Technopoly, so there’s no use writing on that yet!)

  3. March 19, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Thought-provoking as always, Deb… 🙂 Thank you!

  4. March 19, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Awe and wonder are precious gits. As is the willingness to learn.

  5. March 19, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    Societies come and go. Technology changes faster and faster. But people remain pretty much the same in their varied reactions. At least within certain boundaries. The world, as a whole, has learned so much, no one can be a true “Renaissance Man” any more. Even within a general specialty, such as physics, not all physicists speak the same genre. It’s even more obvious is medicine — your primary care physician probably can’t even list all the specialties in medicine, much less all medication, or diagnoses. For example, one of my friends – a physicist – is working on standardizing MRI’s, but he needs the help of a neonatologist, and has not been able to find one that knows that MRI’s *aren’t* standardized, much less why that’s something that requires a physicist to solve the problem! And all this matters because your Primary Care Physician may kill you our of ignorance that isn’t “negligence.” It’s simply impossible for one person to be able to keep up in so many fields… THAT is what’s new in this brave new world — we need “generalists” who know where to look to sort out what goes together and what doesn’t.

    • March 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm

      I hear that. I do wish all GPs had a good, standardized approach. I had a GP whose particular problem-solving approach was apt to miss lots of evident problems: “If it doesn’t show up in a general blood test, it’s not important.” So have spoken many GP’s who lost more patients than they ought. I am glad, then, to have a GP who genuinely listens and diagnoses by more than general blood test. Were we in almost any other developed country in the world, of course, we would spend far less and live longer … if only all GPs worldwide could deliver the same results, being able to concern themselves primarily with patient well being and less with the concerns of insurance companies. 😦

  6. March 20, 2017 at 5:58 am

    I remember those days, not with nostalgia so much as a brightening internal comprehension. My sense now is that computer technology has revolutionized human communication as well as learning in a way that overall is harming human development. All aspects of human civilization are affected adversely by the advent of the atomization of information, as you put it above. No matter how you analyze it, the way we access information now affects us in a negative way: socially, politically, economically, spiritually or even educationally, we are following along in the tracks Huxley wrote about in Brave New World. We are amusing ourselves–to the death of ourselves.

    Great analysis above. Thank you for what you’re trying to do.

    • March 21, 2017 at 7:54 pm

      I agree with everything you wrote about computer technology. I’d felt wariness before reading Postman; after reading Postman, a lot fell into place. We accept all the purported benefits of computer technology (what’s gained) with only the most limited inquiry as to what’s lost. What’s lost is breathtaking in scope, and yet, there’s still more that can and will be lost, particularly if we continue enabling proliferation of new technologies with virtually no corresponding regulations to protect people and planet. (Did you see the Quartz piece about a woman being killed by robot in the wrong work zone? Safety is secondary to speed of production, and more importantly, consumption, even if–when–a few lives are lost along the way.)

      Amusing Ourselves to Death was woven through with references to Huxley. I’d heard of Brave New World, but never with any reference to its subject matter. I bought it late last week and was fairly chilled by the first chapter. Though some specific technologies aren’t applicable any longer, the themes and direction feel very, very much as they were written now. I haven’t mustered the courage to soldier on, yet, but I know I must to appreciate Postman’s references … and, of course, to have a better chance of understanding it all with nuance myself.

      Aside: do you remember my “The Dread Writamatician” post? Postman touched on a similar concept in Technopoly‘s last chapter!

      many subjects are basic, but some subjects are more basic than others. Such subjects have the capability of generating critical thought and of giving students access to questions that get to the heart of the matter. This is not what “back to the basics” advocates usually have in mind. They want language technicians: people who can follow instructions, write reports clearly, spell correctly.

      The last couple of years, I’ve found myself saying over and over again how the fact we can measure something doesn’t mean we ought. With report cards and similar, especially, does the fact something is the most easily measured make it the best measure? Thanks to Postman, I have a better chance of explaining this well in the future, including by explaining a history where “grades” didn’t likely exist as a concept prior to 1792, and how the advent of such simple technologies dramatically change not only what people do but how we interact with the world? The less we explore how these tools change us, the greater the power they will continue to have over us.

  7. March 21, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Since you are reading so much and enjoying it, I’d recommend reading about how consciousness and the concept of ONE (we are all connected) are explained in Eastern philosophies (Vedanta, primarily, which later influenced Buddhism and Taoism).

    • March 21, 2017 at 7:56 pm

      I read some about this back in (my International Baccalaureate) high school. Of course, I now graduated more than two decades ago, which means only the dustiest fragments remain … just enough that I feel bits of them brush up against my memory as I contemplate interconnectedness.

  8. March 21, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    History is so critical to our understanding of today. I am going to go back and look at your reading lists.

    • March 21, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      Honestly, these Postman books are the most compelling I’ve read yet! Where other books (so far) have dissected a small slice of relatively recent phenomena, Postman builds from history in ways that strengthen his explanation–and my understanding–of now. I just finished Technopoly and have lots to mull over, especially his proposals for building solid educational curricula (which encompass the idea of histories, not history).

      I’m so glad Anthony found this book at the bookstore. He was right it’d help me find some of the words I was struggling to find, without the historical context to find them alone.

  9. April 9, 2017 at 2:37 am

    Very interesting. Thanks. I believe everything is connected. And everything can be used for good or for evil. If the people who use the technology are responsible then all is well. Human nature is the problem. And human nature doesn’t change.

  1. March 29, 2017 at 12:03 pm
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