Saturday, October 12, 2019

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (1985)

While flipping through my mother’s copy of Family Circle Magazine last summer, I came upon an article by Andrew Postman addressing parents’ concerns about children and the encroachment of “screens” in family life.  

“This all feels so familiar to me….” writes Andrew.  “A few decades ago, my father, Neil Postman, was America’s best-known “critic” of television and its effect on culture.   His 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death suggested that the dynamics, “grammar” and economics of television were turning us into a perpetual audience...”

The moment I read that sentence, I got a flashback to the 80s.  Yes! I remembered that book! (Not reading it though.  Probably too busy watching TV). It made a huge splash and deservedly so.

The copy I got from the library is the 20th Anniversary Edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  The book, published in 2005, includes an introduction by his son Andrew discussing present day media that is already out of date: the iPhone was not introduced to the public until 2007. 

His father’s book on the other hand, is timeless.  On page one he states: "Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death."

Neil Postman continues: "Other culture watchers and worriers...have observed and recorded the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the arts of show business.  But most of them, I believe, have barely begun to tell the story and meaning of this descent into a vast triviality.”   

He lays the groundwork for his argument by discussing just how enormous an impact means of communication have on the content of a culture.  Why is it so enormous, even history-altering? Because the content of what is expressed by any means of communication is regulated and dictated by those means.  To illustrate this point, Postman uses the example of smoke signals: “While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument.  Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom.”   

The author then takes us on a tour through time, examining those moments in human history when those means--our mediums of communication--changed forever our culture and its contents.  When the written word was invented, culture changed. When the printing press was invented, culture changed. And our present day media overwhelm, with its endless flood of disparate images and sound bites, all started with the invention of the telegraph in the 1830-40s.

The telegraph collapsed space and allowed information to move faster than humans could carry it.  In the 1800s, the average American was not only literate but routinely read and listened to complex subject matter.  Via the printed word (and public talks), coherent, relevant information was shared, discussed, utilized. It served the people.

On the other hand, the telegraph "gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information,” writes Postman.  “That is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.  The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.”’

And basically, it’s been pretty much all downhill from there.  The invention of the photograph soon thereafter “was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraph news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers (of newspapers) in a sea of fact from unknown places with unknown provided the illusion that “the news” had a connection to something within one’s own sensory experience.”

Sound familiar?

Telegraphic sound bites and de-contextualized photographic images laid the perfect groundwork for that most American of pastimes: Watching TV. American television bombards viewers with millions of images, juxtaposed haphazardly within an endless variety of unrelated subject matter.  And the subject matter, writes Postman, “requires minimal skills to comprehend and is largely aimed at emotional gratification” and amusement. Indeed, entertainment is “the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.”

All of it?  Even the news?  Yes. Especially the news.  Good-looking and amiable newscasters share fragments of tragedy and barbarism, then smile and urge us to “join them tomorrow!” Jaunty music is cued, the commercials start and the tragedy is forgotten.  In this universe of strangers and fragmentation, nothing is connected; depth of meaning is lost.

Hopefully by now, you’ve gotten the drift of this convincingly argued and elegantly written book.  There is much to learn from it and reflect upon, and here I have only scratched the surface. Neil Postman, by the way, was not TOTALLY anti-TV.  He understood that it could give comfort and pleasure. He didn’t have a problem with it as a vehicle for straightforward entertainment.  

What really upset him was how people did not see that the news shows and “educational programming” (oh yes, he takes aim at that sacred cow, Sesame Street) are “stylized dramatic performances” staged largely to entertain.  The format of television dictates that this be so. No matter how good the intention, the ingesting of any “serious” or educational programming cannot hold a candle to actually reading (and writing). No, it is far better for those who make the commercials that we turn on the TV (or scroll on our smartphone) rather than open a book.

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