Autumn 2007

Cool war rhetoric

The Assault on Reason

By Al Gore
Penguin Press, USD25.95; Bloomsbury, £20

Designers should not read The Assault on Reason because Al Gore was, is, or will be, the best hope for the next president of the United States, but because this is an extremely timely book that speaks to the very issue – and often in the very language – that mass communicators, particularly designers, address on a daily basis: the free flow of information.

At this critical time in history the American radical right is fighting a war against reason on religious, scientific and moral fronts. For the past seven years it has been dismantling a liberal society that, separate from party politics, has encouraged reason to flourish and allowed information to illuminate. Moreover, the right has marshalled the same media it accuses liberals of controlling, to undermine democratic principles through clever campaigns aimed at imposing their own ultra-conservative hegemony over democratic life.

Gore is taking a stand.

Channelling (and sometimes challenging) thinkers such as the father of spin, Edward Bernays, and the cultural philosopher Marshall McLuhan, as well as media critics Neil Postman, Jürgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky, and indeed Thomas Jefferson, Gore argues that our current social and cultural obsession with fleeting, fragmented media imagery has severely reduced the dominance of the printed word in everyday life. He argues that our image dependency has enabled those who want to replace evolution with ‘intelligent design’ and constrict First Amendment rights through devious euphemisms, to amass tools necessary to distract us while we complacently watch our favourite shows. Without the word we are left with sensations, not reason.

Okay, this lament is not entirely new; McLuhan argued that television was a cool (passive) medium compared to the hot print medium, which forces the human brain to make complex interconnections. But warmed over or not, I have yet to read an American politician (or even a ‘recovering politician’, as Gore repeatedly calls himself) challenge the rise of attention-deficit-hyperactive-disordered media that fails to analyse non-sexy issues for fear of low ratings.

Gore has reason to be indignant, recalling his own debacle during the 2000 presidential debates on national TV. Although he won the verbal smack-down, he lost because he sighed dismissively after one of his opponent’s ignorant retorts. The core of his indictment is how media experts (such as Bush’s former adviser Karl Rove) – and those who employ said experts – control mass perception to manufacture consent (as Walter Lippmann termed manipulation of the populace) by reducing everything to disparate text and image bites that seem authoritative but are really just illusions.

Despite all that bright light emerging from the television screen, Gore argues this has been a veritable dark age. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, some of the blame and, perhaps much of the cure, comes down on designers who work in print, motion and on the Web, and help perpetuate the cool mass media. Television is the biggest bugaboo. He writes that TV ‘presents to its viewers a much more fully formed representation of reality – without requiring the creative collaboration that words have always demanded.’ This may be a familiar, old-school wail, but Gore takes it further: ‘The passivity associated with watching television is at the expense of activity in parts of the brain associated with abstract thought, logic and the reasoning process.’ This does not mean that ‘President Gore’ would outlaw The Sopranos or Flight of the Conchords – but he is attempting to isolate the enemies of reason and the methods of their subversion.

Gore does see some enlightenment at the end of the tunnel, and as an antidote lays out a manifesto for taking back the control of our collective and individual consciousness from radical right opportunists. He has already taken credit for opening the information highway, and he touts it now: ‘The feature of Internet communications that makes it so accessible to individuals is its heavy reliance on text,’ he says. ‘Anyone who learns to read text also learns to write text. For most people, publishing a text message on the Internet is even easier than publishing a printed pamphlet was in the late eighteenth century.’

While Gore does not offer a panacea for change, he believes the best chance to revive reason is on the Web. ‘In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systematic decay of the public forum.’ And this is where designers come in – as long as we don’t succumb to making the Internet merely a bells-and-whistles, ADHD, cool extension of TV.

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