Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves To Death. Penguin, 1985.

Many great thinkers, such as the recently deceased historian Jacques Barzun, have argued that the sun is setting on the West, meaning that the great American empire is in decline. Whether or not this is true, of course, is debatable. If you spend enough time in any major American city though, I suspect you’ll notice the cultural decay, or at least that people are so distracted by their phones that they have a hard time noticing the people around them. Perhaps I’m simply becoming crotchety as I age and this is just another personal rendition of the golden age fallacy. [1] Then again, perhaps not.

The late cultural critic Neil Postman was one of these thinkers who saw the cultural decay in America. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman indicts the television as the root cause of this decay. This prescient book was published in 1985 long before the advent of tablets and smart phones, but many of the arguments are still applicable to modern times. Essentially, Postman argues that television is a medium that transforms our relationship with each other — and with our ability to obtain knowledge about the world — in a negative way. His belief is that writing is a medium suitable for rational discourse, where as television is a medium suitable almost purely for entertainment.  Given the current state of global media it’s hard not disagree, but fortunately for the human race the issue is not quite as black and white as Postman makes it sound.

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Near the beginning of the book, Postman reminds us that two prominent writers of the 20th century, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, prophesied about the state of human affairs in the distant future.  Postman also points out that despite often being associated with envisioning the same thing, the two thinkers visions couldn’t have been more different. He eloquently captures the difference between their vision’s with the following passage, which is worth quoting at length:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Before you accuse Postman of snobbery or elitism, remember that he is not arguing that television is inherently bad, but rather that it’s inherently bad for public discourse. The mind numbing, yet often highly entertaining, shows on television are not a threat to our political process, but news programs like CNN and Fox News are. The reason Postman believes this is because  news programming is about creating entertainment and making money, not about exploring the truth. Talking heads, ostensibly discussing some serious matter, will be interrupted with advertisements on virtually any news channel you can find.  Is no issue important enough to be exempt from profiting off of it?

If you don’t believe news is about entertainment — and not truth — then consider the following anecdote Postman notes in the book involving a news anchor in Kansas.  This particular female news anchor Postman speaks of was fired “because research indicated that her appearance ‘hampered viewer acceptance'”.  I bet this happens more than most of us realize.  Come to think of it, can you name a single horribly unattractive news anchor?  I can’t, and the reason is because politics has become like show business, and “If politics is like show business,” writes Postman, “then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.”

While I’m largely sympathetic to Postman’s critique of television as a poor medium for public discourse, I don’t believe it applies to computers and the Internet as well as it applies to television. Postman wrote this book before the explosion of the Internet, which is too bad, because I’m sure he’d have plenty of interesting things to say about the Internet as well.  If he were still alive perhaps he’d view, as I do, the rise of the Internet as a positive thing — perhaps his outlook on the future of human intelligence and discourse might not have been so grim.

Notes:

[1] See my essay: “Longing for the Human Golden Age”

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