05/25/2010 11:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Media Are "Post-Reason," and We Dutifully Follow

The web is a visual medium. It grows more similar to television while it severs ties to traditional reading and increases its dominance of our political conversation. It is the bitterest of ironies that a format once touted as heralding a new era of enlightened participatory democracy (remember Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree?) is picking up where television left off and doing infinitely more to erode traditional American democratic ideals than to promote them. The web, with its short, choppy text bites and reliance on imagery and video is just as ill-suited to the complex language of American democracy as television. It is more dynamic when (and better utilized to) convey unreasoning kick-in-the-gut emotionalism than Enlightenment era abstractions on the rights of men.

The web only promotes the democratic impulse if you limit the definition of "democratic" to mere participation. But if you mean the American ideals of democratic governance, you could not be more wrong. Americans passively watch the denigration of constitutional ideals via warrantless searches, gross expansions of presidential power, secret government kidnappings, arrests and torture. Some insist that we're happy to sacrifice these traditional freedoms for the sake of safety, but that's only part of it. We no longer walk the complex linguistic landscape in which to refute them. We speak through media that are inherently passive, emotive, and unthinking and we react accordingly. Fear trumps reason. The medium is dictating both the content and the quality of the message--and it's dictating both downward.

When reading we decipher complex symbols (letters) into more complex words into even more complex meanings. It is an active, intellectual process with minimal sensual input.

Image-based media, including the modern web, function more like music. They wash over us and affect us viscerally. Their appreciation is based on emotion, not reason. In web design, text is the enemy. To more quickly engage the restless viewer, we accentuate the sensual and the sensational. Blocks of text are kept as short as possible and imagery and video are emphasized. Check out any news site from CNN to Newsweek to the BBC for examples.

Sociologists and other researchers use images to gauge subjects' true feelings because images are so good at bypassing the rational mind. Viewing them in quick succession, we're more likely to spill the naughty truth before our rational minds kick in to censor us. Ask a person if he's a racist and he'll say "no." Show him images, and you'll have a good chance of getting a different answer.

In fact, image media are thoroughly amoral. They can turn what our reason finds repellent into something emotionally attractive. Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation are both classic examples. They dazzlingly manipulate composition, imagery and montage to engage our emotions in favor of the grotesque: the Third Reich and the KKK respectively. We "root" for the D.W. Griffith's Klansmen because the filmmaker makes us share their emotional point-of-view, not because we agree with their intellectual outlook. Our preferred media function best in the realm of "post-reason." And we adapt.

You are twenty times more likely to be struck by lightning than to face a terror attack aboard an airplane, yet we obsess on the latter. Our new media stoke our emotions (fear in this case) and sever the conduit through which we could reason our way back from the emotional brink. Our democratic principles are based on abstract, Enlightenment era concepts. Our media thrive on visceral, gut-level impulses. The two don't jibe.

These ignorant media to which we're addicted not only dictate how "the message" (whatever it is) will be conveyed, they dictate whether the message will be sent at all. Thus, we edit and even censor ideas and discourse to fit within today's most prevalent and fast-growing frameworks, which are excellent at the wide dissemination of information, but very poor at presenting complex intellectual concepts and the reasoning behind them. They are a far cry from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Irony among ironies: the web is enabling a more participatory democracy that Founders like Alexander Hamilton feared. Today, we all have TV- or web-fueled opinions on topics that in a print-based era would have seemed obscure and arcane (please, how many of us understand the bond ratings, debt-to-GDP ratios and international economic machinations that comprise the national debt; but we all have our opinions, don't we?). The ignorant and telegenic Sarah Palin's every utterance is adoringly captured and disseminated. She makes no sense, but TV loves her smile and the web gorges on her moronic bowls of verbal soup. (Rand Paul transcripts read like those of her illegitimate offspring.)

"We The Rabble" now have dominant information media that, unlike the word, we're wholly comfortable with and so control. With secret prisons, torture, a President with the right to assassinate American citizens with no due process of any kind, and diminishing realms in which to rationally discuss them (versus emotionally react to them), the results are looking as dangerous as Hamilton feared.