Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Is television bad for you?
According to Neil Postman, the answer is unequivocally “yes” – though for reasons that might surprise you. Writing in the mid-1980s, Postman was not another run-of-the-mill TV critic who gave highbrow lectures about the endlessly trivial programming on most TV networks. Triviality was the least of his concerns. The real danger is when television (and other image-based forms of media) tries to take itself seriously, thus displacing modes of communication that are more conducive to critical thinking. Our public discourse increasingly takes place in a world of sound bites, photographs, and video clips – a world that threatens our very capacity for rational, analytical debate. Let’s take a look at Postman’s arguments:
THE POWER OF THE WORD
Prior to the 1950s, the dominant medium for important cultural communication within Western civilization was the written word. Since the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, intellectuals and commoners alike throughout all spheres of society have been subjecting one another’s written ideas to scrutiny, critique, and refinement. This process fueled the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.
Postman asks that we take a minute to pause and acknowledge the tremendous power of the written word. More than any other mode of communication, writing forces discipline and logical coherence onto our thoughts. We may be quick to utter a careless word to a friend, but we become much more deliberate when committing our words to the permanence of print. Similarly, the positive mental effects of deep, focused reading are becoming more and more understood with advances in cognitive sciences. Simply put, when it comes to the rational exposition of nuanced and complex ideas, the written word is king.
THE WORLD OF SHOW BUSINESS
With the advent of television in the mid-twentieth century (and, later, the internet and other digital media), we have been reading less and less but watching more and more. Consequently, our dominant mode of public discourse has shifted from the written word to the watched screen. The problem with this transition is that thinking makes for bad watching. As does detailed context and history. As does in-depth exposition and complicated problem-solving. As does a speaker asking for a few minutes to ponder a question before answering it. Show business, just as the name implies, shows us things. If these things are overly complex or slow developing, the viewer will likely change the channel.
The formula for viewership becomes decontextualization, simplification, and a steady sequence of action – which are all fine for sitcoms and game shows. However, when it comes to serious programming, the results are disastrous. The public gains a false sense of understanding of complicated policy issues. Nuance is discouraged, and partisanship is heightened. Contradictions abound in the sea of constantly shifting sights and sounds. And emotion slowly encroaches into areas where reason should rule. More importantly, we become desensitized to the line of demarcation that separates serious thought from the merely frivolous. World news coverage of a genocide overseas is punctuated with fast food commercials. A Dateline episode on human trafficking is followed by the season finale of Seinfeld. Such vulgar and ridiculous juxtapositions are so common on television that we no longer recognize them.(1) When issues of existential import are presented side-by-side with topics of utter insignificance, society becomes inoculated from serious thought altogether (while simultaneously congratulating itself for staying “well informed”).(2)
AN IDOL OF IMAGES
Should any of this surprise us? After all, the true purpose of television is not to help you understand opposing views or educate you or help you solve problems. The true purpose of television is to keep you watching. It is a jealous god, and we shall have no other gods before it. Whatever lessons we may glean from television are always subordinated to its ultimate goal of gaining and maintaining as many viewers as possible. Of course, most of the lessons we do learn from television are negative. The evening news has taught us to inordinately worry about issues that often have little practical effect on our daily lives. Political programming has led us to be more concerned with witty one-liners than balanced debate. Commercials have taught us that there is a quick and easy solution to any problem.(3) Despite their benefits, educational shows have taught our children that learning should always be fun and easy. Television has become our idol of images, dictating its glib guidance to us on every subject imaginable, while we, its unreflective disciples, nod in agreement.
ORWELL OR HUXLEY
In his novel, 1984, George Orwell warns of the dangers of totalitarian government control, cultural manipulation, and blind obedience to authority. Published in the late 1940s, it perfectly captured the fears of many Westerners who, having just defeated fascist Germany in WWII, found themselves headed toward another major conflict with communist Russia. However, Postman asks us to consider an equally plausible alternative to Orwell’s dystopian future – one described in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World. Huxley’s future world order also envisions massive government and cultural control – though by a completely different mechanism. Instead of using violence and coercion, Huxley’s future regime regulates its society by endlessly dispensing entertainment, distraction, sex, and drugs – all enabled through vast technological development. There is no need to ban books because no one reads; there is no need to suppress information because it can just be drowned out; there is no need to avoid contradiction because everyone is anesthetized by perpetual sensory input.
Postman wants us to take Huxley’s warning seriously: a society that loses its ability to think critically about its challenges becomes vulnerable to oppression and manipulation from within as well as from without. Can we honestly claim that television helps us understand the issues of our day more clearly? Where we used to turn to the written word to grasp complicated subjects, we now turn to the taglines of a broadcaster. Where we used to ponder deep and meaningful prose, we now fret over an ever-changing kaleidoscope of images on our screens. While this may be entertaining, it certainly isn’t helpful.
We blindly believe that technological progress is always synonymous with societal progress, but the advent of image-centric media has steadily eroded the quality and clarity of our public discourse. This erosion leads to a troubling thought: the death of Western culture may not come at the hands of scheming Communists intent on undermining free-thought but at the hands of senseless TV news producers who incidentally undermine it through the very processes inherent to their enterprise.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
Much has changed on the technology front since Postman first issued his criticism of television three and a half decades ago, and most of these changes have only added weight to his arguments. Our daily “screen time” has grown exponentially while fluency in written exposition has simultaneously plummeted.(4) Social media has introduced forms of overt and subliminal mass influence that would make the Politburo shed tears of joy.(5) Information outlets exist to justify any and every political position imaginable, as partisanship is approaching the all-time highs of the 1860s and 1960s. In short, Postman’s analysis was prophetic, and we can only hope to supplement his thinking in a few areas:
1. Why don’t we recognize the dangers of image-based media on our own? Is it because we can’t, or is it because we don’t want to? Postman repeatedly emphasizes that technology is never a strictly neutral affair, but he declines to tell us what kind of affair it actually is then. However, the implication throughout is that the technology under discussion is largely negative. After reading Postman, we might be tempted to place too much blame on our television, computer, and smartphone screens and not enough on ourselves. After all, no one forces us to watch television or create social media accounts. Certainly, no one stops us from reading challenging books. Nevertheless, technology (especially the digital, informational kind) has become omnipresent in our society. Telling people to ignore it would hardly address the issue. Unfortunately, after laying out a brilliant and novel criticism of image-based media, Postman closes his discussion with only two half-hearted proposals (6) to remedy the situation, leaving the reader more than underwhelmed. What Postman’s analysis lacks is a substantially developed theory of technology, which might give us a more powerful understanding of the issues at hand. Let us hazard a brief attempt at such a theory.
The essence of technology is the extension of humanity’s control over its physical and psychological environments. Stated more bluntly, technology represents humankind’s growing ability to get what it wants. Technology is the great revealer of human nature, as its advancement and employment offer profound insights into exactly what it is that humankind desires. Many of these desires are prosaic and predictable: advances in agricultural technology have satisfied our wish to be well fed; advances in medical technology have helped fulfill our longing for bodily health; advances in construction technology have fulfilled our desire for safety and shelter. All these achievements have occurred in the physical realm. But what of the psychological realm?
It is here that we see humanity’s deeper nature on full display, as the information technology problems under discussion may be symptomatic of man’s innate psychological disposition. The unfortunate truth is that we often prefer entertainment over education, superficiality over complexity, and biased affirmation over impartial analysis.(7) Image-based media has flourished precisely because it can give us these things. When cultural critics like Postman decry the negative effects of our current system of information technology, they fail to grasp the deeper, operative truth of the situation. Technology isn’t “happening” to us; we are happening to technology. We create it in our own image to satisfy our desires. Until we acknowledge that we are more the potter than the clay, we will continue to look for solutions to the wrong problems in the wrong areas.(8)
2. Postman is unconcerned with the dangers of TV programming specifically designed as lowbrow entertainment. After all, people need to let their mental hair down from time to time, and plenty of lonesome people have found some much-needed comfort and companionship from their television sets. Unfortunately, writing in the mid-1980s, Postman had never seen Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of Orange County. When he references trivial programming, he was probably thinking about something like The Cosby Show (which, compared to the aforementioned programs, is a paragon of intellection).
Where Postman had reason to remain silent, we must now speak up. We cannot regularly consume shows predicated on vulgarity, immaturity, or shamelessness and yet expect to somehow remain unaffected. Many of us will go to incredible lengths to feed our bodies healthy food, yet we turn around and feed our minds the worst sustenance imaginable. Such television is, in the most literal sense possible, making us dumber. We should no longer shrug it off as merely inconsequential entertainment.
The evolution of digital media has had several upsides. In a matter of seconds, I can use the tablet I’m currently typing on to download nearly any book ever written. I can access videos and courses on any subject imaginable, replete with world-class instructors. I can find answers and data for every curiosity I have. I can learn a new language or a new technical skill. There are truly no limits to what I might discover. Many of these resources are free or can be procured for a nominal fee. However, what we might do with technology and what we actually do with it are two very different things.
For several years now, I have been conducting an informal survey every time I am in a waiting area or gathering place. I observe the people who are on their phones (by informal survey, I mean walking around and secretly looking at everyone’s screen without permission). Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people are not reading Thucydides or brushing up on their French grammar. They are trolling social media, watching sensational news videos, or playing Candy Crush. To echo Postman’s sentiments, the temptations of the screen usually overpower its edifying potentialities. Even if we only used digital media for instructional purposes, Postman’s argument would still hold true: the written word is the superior medium for communicating complex ideas with the most logical rigor possible, and it should guide our public discourse. We have known for some time now that the pen is mightier than the sword. We need to remind ourselves that it is mightier than the screen as well.
(1) Had Postman interspersed his book with car ads between each chapter, not only would we find it absurd, but we would also find it difficult to take him seriously as an author. Yet, this is exactly what many “serious” TV programs do. Fortunately, the rise of subscription-based, streaming TV services has partially alleviated this issue by eliminating commercials altogether.
(2) Postman is right in challenging the purported value of staying “well-informed” – at least under the current use of the term. As far as he can tell, staying well-informed has come to mean knowing about dramatic events in distant lands that have little consequence in our lives, while simultaneously staying largely ignorant about many of the unexciting local issues that do actually affect us.
(3) Even more troubling, commercials try to make us identify problems that we didn’t even know we had (and then, of course, they provide solutions to those problems). Before modern advertising, how were we to know that, all along, our fabric softener’s lack of a longer-lasting scent was a real source of discontent in our lives?
(4) Global literacy rates may be on the rise, but this is merely a quantitative response to a qualitative problem.
(5) Social media also has a strong propensity to breed egoism in its users. YouTube and Instagram create illusions of notoriety and grandeur in the minds of many young people. Truly, anyone can be (or pretend to be) a star these days.
(6) One is to parody the harmful effects of TV on TV so people might start questioning its effects on their minds (I suspect this would just discourage people from taking the issue seriously). The second is to utilize the public education system to instruct youth on the potential dangers of television. The details of how this might be enacted are not developed.
(7) A philosopher of aesthetics might retort that innate psychology is not the problem so much as poor education. We fall prey to the shallow and superficial because we have not been trained to sufficiently appreciate the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – concepts which our postmodern age has relegated to individual preferences.
(8) What, then, are the right problems and the right areas? This question deserves a book unto itself, but, for now, we can safely say that the answers would have little to do with technology and more to do with philosophy, theology, and psychology.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.