Amusing Ourselves to Death
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
By Neil Postman
A while back, I saw a very well-drawn cartoon explaining, in a nutshell, the thesis of this book. It contrasts George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of the future, and concludes that Huxley was more accurate. The cartoon really spoke to me. It wasn’t until after I’d added the book to my library queue that I realized it had been published over 15 years ago.
What ended up being most interesting about this book was trying to imagine how and whether what Postman says applies to the internet, since he wrote at a time when culture was dominated by television. We are already shifting away from TV, though the shift is still in its infancy. So is this new shift an improvement or are we even worse off, in Postman’s worldview? Well, he passed away in 2003, so it would have been hard for him to see exactly where the internet was going, culturally speaking. Hell, we still can’t.
Did this book speak to me as much as the cartoon did? See for yourself:
Postman divides the book into two parts: the first is a history of the influence of media on culture and the rise of print and photography. The second explores a culture steeped in television: 1980s America.
An interesting anecdote in Part I is that of a Revolutionary War-era religious group called The Dunkers. Postman came across their story in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Franklin had suggested to his Dunker friend that they ought to write down the tenets of their beliefs, and they responded that they didn’t feel comfortable putting anything in writing because they didn’t want their descendants to be “bound and confined” by it, in case God chose to reveal more truths as time went on. Taking specific measures to ensure openness to future ideas: wow.
Postman also explores colonial America’s dedication to education of every child, and how that widespread literacy shaped our early culture. Examples: the volume of books being sold in the US was astounding, and attention spans were downright shocking (he cites one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted SEVEN HOURS).
On to part II: the age of showbusiness, or 1980s America. I did snicker at some of his criticisms, e.g. the “rapid-fire editing” on Sesame Street. Yet, Postman pointed out several things which are still definitely true today.
Firstly, he points out the difficulty people have in discerning truth on televised programming, and how it forces us to rely instead on the credibility of the person on television.
This is a matter of considerable importance, for it goes beyond the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
You can just picture Postman watching Reagan on TV, then writing that sentence, can’t you?
He dedicates chapters to things that are now clichés, such as televangelists and pundits who confuse emotion with informed opinion. But there are also some zingers, like his assertion that television commercials attack capitalism itself:
…the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists…believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver.
Anyone who’s worked in marketing (or watched Mad Men) can see the problem here: modern advertising is wholly based on emotion, not reason. And, at least in the 1980s, the television commercial was the pinnacle of this trend (which started in the early 1900s).
As a parent, I am very concerned about all this. And for us that has translated into limiting the amount of screen-time our children get (see my review of Simplicity Parenting for more on that). Postman explains well why this is important:
… we learn what we do. Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.
Right now my kids can and should be kids — exploring, playing, learning, and discovering things on their own, rather than being passive receptors of one narrow kind of information. I am not 100% anti-T.V. We have Netflix, and watch DVDs several times a week (we’re a little behind on streaming still with our old power-PC Macs).
My challenge to you: go DVD/DVR/Netflix streaming/whatever-only for one month. Then try to watch a regular show on one of the networks. You will not be able to stand the constant commercial interruption. It’s become unbearable for me to watch regular TV now, and that’s just the way I like it because it’s a great way to control how much I watch–those three days waiting for the new disc to arrive are spent doing other things. (Crap, how will I control myself if/when we upgrade and can finally use Watch Instantly?)
Postman is careful not to totally demonize TV, though, but to simply point out that, as high-minded as some TV tries to be, the message is limited by the medium. Television demands interesting pictures, and simple explanations. And shows that try to rise above the tumult and include actual thoughtful exposition fail, because the medium simply was not designed for it. And that’s OK, but only as long as we are all aware of it.
So what are we thoughtful readers to do? Postman:
What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested as well… He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
Education. There you have it. And you all know where that starts.
The bigger question: how does all of this apply to a culture which is now shifting from TV to the internet? My gut instinct is that some things are better and others are worse, but that the internet is somehow going to end up being this strange mash-up of print and television, hopefully eventually becoming more like the best of both worlds, instead of the worst. Only time will tell.