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Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman


     “Passive interruption, incoherence, surprise, [and novelty] are the ordinary conditions of our lives. They have even become the main interests for many people, whose minds are no longer fed... by anything but changes and constantly renewed stimuli... we can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit... so the whole question comes down to this: can the human mind master what the human mind has made.” —Paul Valery


     Neil Postman follows in the Marshall McLuhen tradition—The TV medium itself is a massage and a message—except his excesses are nowhere near as bad. Postman has some wonderful ideas. All public communication, claims Postman in a little hyperbole, is becoming entertainment. He writes this development has mostly been unnoticed. The display became more important than the quality of claims. The techniques of amusement are so well developed "serious" commentators are more entertaining than professional entertainers. For some, politics is the entertainment business by other means.


     Postman argues the medium used to deliver information greatly affects the information that can and will be delivered. Smoke signals, he writes, can not send complex philosophical messages. Likewise, television subordinates words to images. Complex ideas do not coexist well with TV. Late-breaking news could not exist without electronic mediums. A chasm exists between what individuals choose to let influence them and what they should choose. Postman disparages the worldwide barrage of fragments. Image saturation limits thought and limits the development of cultures. (Much of the time I see the word culture I want to throw up.) He suspects the Jewish emphasis on “the word” rather than “graven images” greatly affected the quality of culture that developed. .


     As someone in Utne Reader eloquently put it (as best I can remember), “Celebrity role models are stupid. It’s passivity and hierarchies disguised as liberation. It’s worshipping images instead of doing good. How is anything gonna change if we’re all at home watching Xena and Buffy?”


     Postman writes that good thinking rarely exists without focused scrutiny. The written word allows individuals to freeze speech and play with ideas. Writing, he finds, must have seemed strange and magical to purely oral groups. How odd to correct “oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand.”


     Tools influence the development of ideas, sometimes leading in radical directions. The invention of eyeglasses, Postman posits, not only fixed vision, but also spread the idea that we need not accept nature and anatomy as destiny.


     Postman has little problem with lowbrow junk on television. The most dangerous elements on television are the higher brow junk, the snippets of info and images that pass for wise conversation, yet are little more than infotainment and “talking hair-do’s.”


     Newscaster Robert MacNeil says “bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, the nuances are dispensible, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.”


     Giving us a short history, Postman holds that writing had a grip on early America, as well it should. Being literate meant being able to access information without local leaders telling you what was so. At least 89 percent of men in Massachusetts and Connecticut were literate. Common Sense by Thomas Paine was so popular it sold the equivalent today of 24 million copies. Newspapers and pamphlets were even more popular. Most towns had lecture halls. Crowds packed them after the workday ended.


Charles Dickens was a superstar when he visited the United States in 1842. Crowds escorted his carriage wherever he went. One of the Lincoln-Douglass debates lasted seven hours, and neither was a presidential candidate at the time.


     Postman contends that when we use written language, explicit or implied claims usually result. Written words are good for little else. Ink lines on paper are otherwise worthless and uninteresting.


     Beginning with the telegraph, things changed. The percentage of information useful for purposes other than entertainment declined. “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?” What good does it do to be the world's greatest thinker about why a football team lost a game?


     Newer technologies assist those wanting to move information rather than analyze it. Speed, escapism, and passivity are equated with freedom. Images pop into view, then are replaced by a constant stream of new images. We know much about the past day—the Dow Jones was up 13 points, Florida beat Georgia, another pit bull mauled someone, a celebrity is fighting toe cancer—yet we know little else. We would ridicule someone who knew every football score from October 1975. Yet we do not ridicule someone who knows all of today’s football scores. What makes today’s sports more important than 1975's? Increasingly, current events becomes synonymous with trivial events.


     Postman argues television is a curriculum. More “education” takes place in front of the TV than in school. Being informed means knowing the superficial and the irrelevant, information often true but worthless. The great imperative is the right to waste time. The rights and duties to do wonderful things are considered worthless.


     The weaknesses of this work: It fails to mention that the world of slow ideas was missing many important ideas. The percentage of beneficial ideas plummeted, but at least more beneficial ideas exist now, out there, somewhere. For those inclined to look carefully, wonderful ideas on most subjects now abound, though they get ignored. Of course, it is also true that if you carefully wallow in 0.01 percent of available pop culture and ignore 99.99 percent, you are little better off than the wanton who wallows whatever pop culture catches his attention. The 0.01 percent is sufficient to squander a life.


     Despite what Postman claims, the world does need more information—good information. The combined number of books, articles, and web pages may number in the billions, yet it is still damn hard to find well-reasoned information on important topics. It takes careful, time-consuming effort to find what little good information exists. Postman underestimates how hard it is to track down great truths in seas of rubbish. Then there is his claim “Radio... is the least likely medium to end up in the Huxlean world.” Hmm... I don’t think so. Radio sure looks like a wasteland. His definitions are not good. He, for example, defines “conversation” to mean speech and all methods used to deliver messages. Marshall McLuhan would be proud of Postman. This is the best of Postman's works. Worth a look.


Book review by JT Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.


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