Friday, April 1, 2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death is definitely going to move into my top 10 favorite books. It was written in 1985, but is even more relevant today. It is frightening in its prescience and saddening in its conclusions. It will be the book future generations will look back on as a harbinger. That is, if they can still read. 

Neil Postman lays out his thesis clearly in the beginning of the book, “It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.”

Postman believes that have we have moved from oral tradition to what he calls “typographic man,” who got his information from books, to television, and that, “the epistemology created by television is not only inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.” Clear enough. The invention of television has fundamentally changed not only how we receive information, but what kinds of information we receive. And it has certainly not been for our betterment.

With “Typographic America,” we got the Founding Fathers. “Sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” This time period was the perfect storm of the wide availability of deep and intellectually satisfying books, coupled with high literacy rates, and no competition from more entertaining media. It cannot be replicated. 

So why is typographic transmission of information better? Postman states, “Whenever language is the principal medium of communication — especially language controlled by the rigors of print — an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result… It is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.” Books forced authors to make a case for their point of view. At this period of time, books were rarely for entertainment value alone. Even something like Shakespeare or other great literature of the time carried with it the seeds of intellectual discourse. 

But we still read today, don’t we? Well to that Postman rebuts, “To understand the role that the printed word played in providing an earlier America with its assumptions about intelligence, truth and the nature of discourse, one must keep in view that the act of reading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had an entirely different quality to it than the act of reading does today. For one thing, as I have said, the printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public knowledge. Public figures were known largely by their written words, for example, not by their looks or even their oratory. It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the street.” Hard to imagine.

He gives this time period the moniker, The Age of Exposition. “Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics were associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” This is why common people could sit through the Lincoln-Douglas debates lasting for hours in the hot sun. They were used to complicated arguments being made and dissected. They knew how to think critically and evaluate the ideas being presented to them. And it was fun. This was their entertainment. Ideas.

From there we entered The Age of Show Business. To our discredit.

We began with the telegraph. “The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” Information became valuable for its “novelty, interest, and curiosity.” It became a thing. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.” They knew a lot, but had no power to act upon that knowledge. Similarly today, we know so much about nuclear weapons, NATO, rates of inflation and unemployment, but of what value is that information to us? What can we actually do with that information. Sure we could vote based on all of it, but a vote is for one person and the issues are myriad. “The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” 

Information became largely meaningless. Think that’s hyperbole? In contrast, Postman notes, “A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism. But the telegraph demands that we burn its contents…. The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.” Think: Twitter. 

Today, information has largely turned into a diversion. We use it for games and quiz shows. What else are we to do with all these facts? He includes photography with telegraphs as a “language that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.” 

Television married the two technologies of telegraphy and photography together. It “gave the epistemological biases of the telegraph and photograph their most potent expression, raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection.” So complete is the informational revolution that he can say, “television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; …television’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality;… the phrase ‘serious television’ is a contradiction in terms; and… television speaks in only one persistent voice — the voice of entertainment.” It has transformed our entire culture into “one vast arena for show business.”

In the next section of the book, he points out exactly how pernicious television is. “Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it.” He goes on to clearly state, “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining… No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.” Ouch. In fact he goes on to use the ubiquitous news phrase, “Now, this…” as an example of the incoherence of television information. It’s all so random and disconnected. “The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” And this was in 1985!

Television changes the message by its very existence. We have substituted images for words and arguments. Nowhere is this clearer than in advertisements. Early advertisements were small, word-heavy arguments for a product. Today, we have beautiful people using the product. The message has changed from, “Buy our product because it is better than what you are currently using” to “buy our product because beautiful people buy our product.” How is that an argument and not an insult? We will FEEL more attractive, smarter, cooler, and all-around more valuable if we use Tide rather than All. It’s bite-sized, 30-second, therapy designed to make us feel really, really good about ourselves. This is barely conceivable in a book. With television, the medium IS the message.

This slapdash bits of incoherent and irrelevant bits of information coming at us from television (and even more so with the internet) have led to a generation incapable of remembering. We cannot. Without “a contextual basis — a theory, a vision, a metaphor — something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned," remembering any of what we are bombarded with will be impossible. That is why you can ask college students who won the Civil War and they will look dazed and confused. 

This all has ramifications on our liberty. Postman says we are not so much in danger of an Orwellian future, but one predicted by Aldous Huxley, in which the masses are entertained into stupefaction. He states, “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.” This is why we can hear about the latest breach of the public trust, yawn, and say, “We are not amused.” Literally. We are not amused, and therefore we will change the channel and disregard the information. 

This "dying to be entertained" philosophy has infiltrated education as well as every other part of society. But… Sesame Street! you will claim. Sesame Street does not teach children to love school. It teaches them to love television. “The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. “ We have refashioned “the classroom into a place where both teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities.” 

At this point, I was only a few pages from the end. Little room left to share some kind of hopeful solution. Alas, there isn’t one. He hopes that in understanding his message, we will begin to question television and its impact on our culture. He offers only two solutions, “one of which is nonsense and can be dismissed almost at once; the other is desperate but it is all we have.” 

The nonsense solution is to have television programming designed to show us how dangerous it is and how it impacts our culture in a negative way. Not gonna happen. 

The desperate answer is to rely on schools to educate our children about the dangers of television. He agrees with Huxley “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.” Let’s just say I’m skeptical that our education system could ever teach this lesson. They are, after all, products of the Age of Show Business.

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