March 5, 2021

Amusing Ourselves To Death

TL;DR Summary

Published in 1985, educator Neil Postman believed that instead of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World should be used as a model for where we are headed as a society. His characters are not forced into dark oppressive lives, but live their dystopia duped into a stupefied bliss. As Postman says “Huxley 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.” He takes us into modern (80s) America, and charts the historical and social developments that have taken us to the point in which a failed movie star was sitting President.

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Postman: Neil Postman was an educator, author, media theorist, and cultural critic. Of particular interest to him were technology and education, and how the two intertwined. He never owned a computer, or even a typewriter, and worried about the way in which television and computing might remove our ability to connect to one another face-to-face as humans, and think critically.

Key Aspects of the book:

  • Television is becoming our version of Huxley’s soma. Dosing entertainment into our brains in ever more sophisticated ways, while gradually reducing the time we spent reading, thinking, and pondering things analytically.
  • “Huxley feared there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
  • The 1980s seemed to represent a pinnacle for Postman in where culture had been moving for some time. The President was an actor who was clearly in steep cognitive decline, yet nobody mentioned it in the news. Advertising was ubiquitous and sophisticated. Individualism, consumerism, and image were everything. The age of entertainment - everybody in the public eye is expected to entertain: “In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers.”
  • We’ve moved from an aural one (pinnacle: Greeks) to a written one (pinnacle: Enlightenment), to a visual one (pinnacle: today).

The Abstract vs The Image

  • Highlights the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. By believing in God through The Image, rather than the Word, you are limiting Him. Abstractions are difficult to grapple with, but important.
  • Television brings in personality and geniality into our heads, but isn’t so good at abstraction.

Mediums of Communication

  • The dominant method of communication is what creates the culture around it.
  • Oral tradition was dominant pre 5th Century BC. It was more based on bringing people together, drawing on thousands of stored parables and proverbs, and then dealing out judgement based on what was being discussed. The Grecian reliance of rhetoric over objective truth condemned Socrates to death - he was not a good rhetorician. More of an understanding of myth and mystery and left nature relatively unthreatened, believing humans were part of the tapestry between the heavens and earth, not dominant over it.
  • “It hardly befits a people who stand ready to blow up the planet to praise themselves too vigorously for having found the true way to talk about nature.”
  • Alphabet and the written word emerged in the West in the 5th Century BC - there came with it a new understanding of intelligence, audience, and posterity being important. The freezing of speech gives birth to the logician, historian, scientist. Glasses being invented in the 12th century confirmed the shift from ear to eye as our main sense. We had dominated nature, and therefore God.
  • While listening is complex enough, reading is a deeply complex activity we do. We control our bodies to stay still, our eyes to focus on the page, our minds to focus on the words, and we do difficult visual work decoding signs, letters, words, and sequences on the page. Bertrand Russel called it “Immunity to eloquence". You have to adjudge tone, mood, discourse, and then decide whether what is written is a joke or an argument. Thoughts and questions must be held in the mind the whole time. Impressive feat for our brains!
  • The Printing Press, invented in the 16th Century, sped this up. It enabled us to spread ideas and opinions at a faster rate than ever before, and enabled books of greater length to be distributed to wider places. Postman argues that the Printing Press created the American Revolution, and therefore the early Modern United States.
  • The Photographic Tradition, which came to power in the 20th Century, created an objective slice of space-time, testifying that someone was there or that something happened. It's testimony is powerful but offers no opinions, challenges, disputes, or cross-examinations.

Media as Metaphor

Central to Postman’s idea is the concept of the Media Metaphor, and linked to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message.

It’s worth breaking down what he means.

Metaphor: A metaphor suggests what a thing is like by comparing it to something else. It so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine one thing without the other: light is a wave, language a tree, God a wise man, the mind a dark cavern, illuminated with knowledge.

Media as Metaphor: These metaphors change as the media changes. Light is a particle, language a river, God a differential equation, the mind a garden. We go from “saying is believing” (aural tradition), to “seeing is believing” (written and image tradition). Our minds now “cannot compute” something.

Each time this changes, we get it wrong: McLuhan calls this Rear View Mirror Thinking - the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one. An automobile is a fast horse; an electric light is a powerful candle…

TV and News

This is the most savage of Postman’s criticism of what television has done to society.

He believes it started with the telegraph. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden that “we are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Postman moves from this to the News. He sees anchors as performers, being cast as you would a fiction or reality TV show - based on looks and charisma. The news is broken up into 45 second chunks, in which a serious piece of tragedy is swiftly brushed aside for a piece of jovial frivolity. It has all the qualities of a good soap: action, drama, cliffhanger, and beautiful people. They say “join us tomorrow”, and Postman asks, “for what?” More news from across the world that keeps one informed and entertained, yet not educated. There is no reflection or catharsis in much of the news.

Bill Moyers (a brilliant journalist whose series of interviews with Joseph Campbell I cannot recommend highly enough), said, “I worry that my own business helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs. We Americans seem to know everything about the last 24 hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years."

Education:

He introduces some potential new commandments for those looking to create educational tv:

THOU SHALT INDUCE NO PERPLEXITY

Confusion is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station.

THOU SHALT AVOID EXPOSITION LIKE THE TEN PLAGUES VISITED UPON EGYPT

Storytelling is king/queen - conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. Nothing will be taught on TV that cannot be both visualised and placed in a theatrical context.

Stats:

From this, Postman introduces a number of statistics:

  • 51% of viewers could not recall a single item of news a few minutes after viewing a news programme on television.
  • Average television viewer could retain only 20% of information contained in a fictional televised news story.
  • 3.5% of viewers able to answer successfully 12 true/false questions concerning two 30s segments of commercial TV ads.

Political Commercials

We will see millions of commercials in our lifetime, and they are getting ever more sophisticated in their construction and their intended effect upon our psychology.

"One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it."

In politics, in which Postman played a brief role it is now well know that for the average voter, their political knowledge “means having pictures in your head more than having words." As such, politicians place a much greater emphasis on image, posture, vocal tone and soundbites than they do real substantive research into the issues of the day they will be working on.

Positives

While appearing to intentional mould himself as a Luddite to new technology, Postman could in fact see some positives in our new method of entertainment. He believes it could help the infirm and elderly pass the time, and help arouse support for grand movements (e.g. Vietnam War or race relations). Aware of legacy, he states "we must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us."

It does make me wonder what Postman would have thought of the world today. He may be encouraged to see that reading is still widely practiced, and that writing still a valued skill. While we are waking up to the ills of social media and the effects of the “like” button upon our psychology, there are still platforms plentiful in their ability to distract, stupefy, amuse and, most importantly, entertain. Our politics have not changed in their discourse, and neither have television commercials. In fact the processes Postman describes in the book have probably sped up dramatically.

What shouldn’t be too surprising is that the book holds up after some time. It was written in an age that heralded the one we are currently living in. While computers had yet to become mainstream in 1985, consumerism, individualism, and our obsession with the image were growing at alarming speeds. Since then, these traits have only become magnified with new mediums and new technologies. We have entered the Information Age, but time will tell if Amusement might be a better moniker.

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