Now this…Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

postmanWe live in a world of distractions. A world infiltrated by a cacophony of Internet sites, memes, and social networks; a world of cell phones and smart phones and iphones; an influx of cable channels by the hundreds, flat-screens, DVDs, HDTV and Blue-ray. In other words, a world of instantaneous and constant noise.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, first published in 1985, was a work ahead of its time. It is a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century. In it Postman argues that television, and media in the larger context, has generated a seismic shift in our epistemology, adversely affecting our public discourse.

The book opens with a Foreword that relates two literary dystopic visions—that of George Orwell, who in his book 1984 warned about a despotic state that would ban information to keep the public powerless, and that of Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World depicted a population too amused by distraction to realize that they had been made powerless. Postman wants to argue that discourse inspired by television has turned our world into a Huxleyan nightmare. “What Orwell feared,” writes Postman, “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.”

Postman divides his book into two parts. Part I is concerned with background and historical analysis. In the first chapter, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Postman introduces the concept of “media-metaphors.” “Culture is a conversation, or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes.” And conversation, or discourse, is necessarily limited by the form of the medium it employs. That is, the limitations of a particularly medium affects what can be realistically communicated. Postman suggests, for instance, that the “smoke signals” of Native Americans conveyed only a limited amount of information. You can’t have an abstract, philosophical discussion using smoke signals. Thus form excludes content.

Postman gives additional examples of how the form of discourse limits content, but perhaps most crucial for his argument is what he calls “the news of the day.” Postman observes that the “news of the day” could not exist without the proper media to give it expression. Even though atrocities have always occurred in human history, for example, they were not a facet of a person’s everyday life until the telegraph (and subsequent technologies) made it possible for them to be communicated at a faster rate. This idea of instantaneous, decontextualized information will be central to later chapters.

Postman wants to show how today’s denizens are “undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.” By proposing our media-metaphors as powerful forces that influence our means of thought, he means to say that form subjugates content. “Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” In the reminder of the book Postman intends to reveal the effect of the media-metaphor of television on our minds.

In Chapter Two, Postman examines how media determines the way in which we define truth. Although Postman rejects relativism, he does believe a civilization will identify truth largely based on its forms of communication. An oral culture, for example, will likely put great stock in a man who remembers proverbs, since truth is passed on through such stories, whereas a culture of the written word will find oral proverbs only quaint, and the permanence of written precedent far more important. What concerns Postman about the television is not that it provides non-stop entertainment; rather, it has limited our discourse to where all of our serious forms of discussion have turned into entertainment.

“Truth,” writes Postman, “does not, and never has, come unadorned.” It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged. The way a culture defines “truth” is largely contingent on the means, mediums, and technologies through which they receive it. Postman speaks of truth as a “cultural prejudice,” and goes on to illustrate some of our own prejudices. Our society, for instance, is largely reliant on numbers to illustrate our truth, to the point that we often consider no other source as capable of communicating economic truth. Something relatively more recent is satire. We watch shows like SNL, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show not only to laugh but to find out the latest information. Thus such sources of information determines how we derive truth. Our media has become our epistemology. And from that Postman wishes to show “that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”

In Chapters Three through Four, Postman discusses the way that “Typographic America” influenced the “Typographic Mind.” During the colonial period and through about the mid-nineteenth century, the American populace was markedly literate and thus accustomed to approaching the world from a rational—or, at least, expository—perspective. Because the written word is based around a series of rational propositions that challenge a reader to judge them as true or false, the whole of society during this period was founded around the idea of rational discourse.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connection one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text.

The printing press was not simply a machine of the industrial age: it was a “structure for discourse,” delimiting and establishing rules, insisting upon certain kinds of content, and inevitably a certain kind of audience.

This period transitioned into “The Peek-a-Boo World, which Postman discusses in Chapter Five. With the invention of the telegraph and the photograph in the middle years of the nineteenth century, transportation and communication became disengaged from each other, “that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” The sudden access to instantaneous information resulted in society being less driven by contextual understanding of  information and more involved with the collection of irrelevant “facts” divorced from context.

Everything Postman describes in this chapter is doubly true about the Internet. Much Internet humor derives from decontextualizing artists or politicians from their primary context, and the prevalence of photo manipulation allows a subterfuge of authority. As newspapers become part of a dying industry, replaced by a prevalence of less-researched and accountable Internet sources, one would be remiss to heed the warning that information without context can only serve to make us less informed and less driven towards any type of real action.

With Part II Postman begins discussing the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse. In Chapter Six, “The Age of Show Business,” he explains how “The Age of Exposition” was replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. Entertainment has become the content of all our  discourse, to the point where the message itself is trumped by the entertainment value of its delivery. “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology,” he writes, “believe that a technology is entirely neutral.” Television as medium demands heavy editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation. These are the inherent biases of television.

In Chapter Seven, “Now…This,” Postman uses the “news of the day” to provide a metaphor for how we now receive all information. He decries how we are now “presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” The most horrific story only gets a short bit of attention, and then is separated from the next story. There is no time for reflection, and the entertaining aspects of the news—attractive newscasters, pleasant music, clever transitions—only reinforce the idea that the information we receive is not to be considered in the context of our lives.

In Chapters Eight through Ten, Postman examines other modes of important public discourse that have been affected, and denigrated, to entertainment under the media-metaphor of television. Chapter Eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem,” examines how religion has become an empty spectacle on television—which to some degree has also transferred into the church—and thus lacks the power to deliver a truly religious experience.

Chapter Nine examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do: namely, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. Politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. The Obamas are just the most recent manifestations of this, as is evidenced with both Michelle and Barack Obama appearing on numerous day-time talk shows, night-time late shows, and even syndicated comedy programs. Postman notes how over time notions of fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. “Television,” he writes, “does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom.” Much like the way a product is advertised, a candidate is presented as an image of who the audience wants to be: “This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.” But this is not an entirely new phenomena. “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent.”

Chapter Ten, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” explores how even education is transitioning into an entertainment industry. Postman begins with a discussion of the iconic Sesame Street. When it first premiered in 1969, it quickly became a hit, largely because children saw in it the principles of television commercials, while parents loved it because it had the potential to educate in a form that children embraced. Its use of cute puppets, celebrity appearances, catchy songs, and heavy editing assuaged a society’s ever-deepening thirst for entertainment.

However, according to Postman, Sesame Street “encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.'” Sesame Street, accordingly, undermines traditional pedagogy. A child cannot ask questions of what is presented on television; she learns more about images than about language; and is held to no standard of social behavior or expectation. “Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Postman ends his book with “The Huxleyan Warning,” in which he reiterates that Huxley was right. Our culture is becoming a burlesque, and will ultimately shrivel. In this concluding chapter Postman is aware that he might come off as some cantankerous Luddite, but time is proving him right.

The question should be asked if whether Amusing Ourselves to Death remains relevant for a world less defined by the media-metaphor of television than by the media-metaphor of the Internet. To this we can give a resounding yes. The concept of channel surfing has reached a new apex with the Internet, where one can find more fragmented, decontextualized information than even Postman could have imagined. His warning remains one worth considering.

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