Written in 1985 by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death lays out the case that television is hazardous to our health. Postman is not critical of all television, only when “it co-opts serious modes of discourse—news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion—and turns them into entertainment.” Specifically, “‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”
The book traces the evolution of communication before television starting with the spoken word, then to the printing press, and then the written word.
Ever wonder what Americans in the mid-1800s did for entertainment? Without the internet, TV, or radio, the spoken word served as both the primary forms of entertainment and social interaction. Audiences would gather for what would amount to modern-day rock concerts: “Typically at county or state fairs, programs included many speakers, most of whom were allotted three hours for their arguments. And since it was preferred that speakers not go unanswered, their opponents were allotted an equal length of time.” The math comes out to six hours of debate. I can barely sit through 5 minutes of presidential debates today!
Soon, the telegraph is invented. This starts us down the road of brevity and “context-free information,” linking geographically distant areas around the globe like never before. Suddenly, someone living in Maine can be made immediately aware of news in Texas or even Europe. The news is no longer about your local area, but about the world.
Next advertising evolves, going from a dry and detailed “series of testable, logically ordered assertions” to a “drama” depicting “handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune.”
Finally, television news comes along, neatly packaging “fragments of tragedy and barbarism” with music, lighting, and an attractive newsreader all working together to gain your applause. The viewer is lulled into a sense of comfort “by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King.” Fancy graphics and short video clips are strategically sprinkled in to attract your eye, not to make you think or reflect, but to invoke a feeling. By the end, the newscaster urges us to “‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights.”
Today, there seems to be a growing concern that our society could fall victim to a 1984-style tyrannical government take-over. Postman argues instead that television is pushing us closer to Aldous Huxley’s dystopia. As Huxley says in Brave New World Revisited, “the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'” Postman goes on to say, “What Orwell feared 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.” Furthermore, “Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Towards the end of the book, Postman briefly dismisses the coming computer age is inconsequential. As adept as he is at formulating his arguments about the evolution of communication, Postman fails to see the approaching tidal wave of entertainment that the internet, computers, and smartphones will bring.
The social media age we live in now is the natural evolution of the television age further abbreviating and repackaging the news into smaller bite-size Milkyway bars of pleasure while pushing us ever closer to a Brave New World of Amusing Ourselves to Death.Tags: books philosophy