A Warning From Another Time

We would all do well to remember Newton Minow’s prescience about the dangers of new technology—and his optimism, too.

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, two men apparently starving for both attention and meaning, have lately been promising to fight each other in a “cage match.” Charlie Warzel, The Atlantic’s in-house expert on this relationship (he has other responsibilities as well), recently wrote, “As the result of an inexplicable series of firing neurons, Musk managed to not only type but also send the following two-sentence tone poem: ‘I will be in Palo Alto on Monday. Let’s fight in your Octagon.’ ”

Explore the October 2023 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

“At a sentence level,” Charlie explained, “these words, strung together in this order and seemingly without irony, are hilarious. From the standpoint of being a human, the Musk-Zuck cage match is an offensive waste of time—the result of a broken media system that allows those with influence and shamelessness to commandeer our collective attention at will.”

Charlie’s acid commentary reminded me of our colleague Megan Garber’s March 2023 cover story, “We’re Already Living in the Metaverse,” which argued that reality has become distorted by our pathological need to be entertained. Megan examined society’s addiction to illusion and trivia and cited the great dystopian writers of the recent past, who warned that “we will become so distracted and dazed by our fictions that we’ll lose our sense of what is real.” The result, Megan wrote, “will be a populace that forgets how to think, how to empathize with one another, even how to govern and be governed.”

I’m fascinated by Megan’s work, and the work of thinkers who have come before her, including Neil Postman and Newton Minow, the former chair of the Federal Communications Commission who argued in a 1961 speech that TV was being turned into a “vast wasteland.”

Megan’s story prompted me to visit Minow in Chicago earlier this year. He was 97 when we met. I’d heard that Minow was, unaccountably, an optimist, and I wanted to understand how someone who thought that the television programming of 1961 was noxious and stupid could look at our culture today—a culture shaped by people like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk—and not feel despair.

Newton Minow, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies before the Senate Small Business Subcommittee. (Associated Press)

We had lunch in his apartment, the same apartment in which he hosted the very first political fundraiser for one of his law firm’s former summer associates, Barack Obama. Minow was sharp, talkative, and wryly humorous. He was pleased that his 1961 speech—certainly one of the most consequential ever delivered at the intersection of culture and politics—had prompted the television executive Sherwood Schwartz to name the boat in Gilligan’s Island after him. Minow explained that, at his age, he was counting on God to watch over us, and that he believed in the dictum, widely attributed to Churchill, that Americans will do the right thing after trying everything else. More to the immediate point, he took comfort from watching every minute of the televised January 6 hearings. He noted, “They brought in a television producer to communicate to the American people.” This gave him hope that the tools at our disposal could be used for good as well as bad. “I’m still appalled that so many Americans don’t take January 6 seriously,” he said, but added that it means something that many millions of them watched, and learned, from the medium he once criticized.

I spoke for several hours with this prophet, who died a couple of months after our meeting. We discussed the fairness doctrine, the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt, the history of the BBC. As I was leaving, he praised magazines like this one for holding the line, for believing that Americans are capable of sober, focused, complicated, and informed thought. At The Atlantic, we try to talk up to our readers, not down, and Minow reminded me that this is a worthy cause.

This month, we publish one of the most heartbreaking, insightful, and emotionally resonant stories in recent memory, “Jenisha From Kentucky,” by our senior editor Jenisha Watts. I cannot summarize it for you. I can only say that it is a beautiful and transcendent story, one that takes time to read and absorb. The support of readers like you is what allows us to publish the work we do, and I am in your debt. In a time of foolishness, of billionaire cage matches and political idiocy, I am all the more grateful.

This editor’s note appears in the October 2023 print edition.

Read More

Jeffrey Goldberg