Briefest of Commentaries: Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

A cogent analysis of the ways in which the forms and features of our technologies–rather than the content they deliver to us–shape our perceptions, understandings, and ways of interacting with the world. For Postman, the age of print was the age most suited to participation in democratic life, as the logic of print demands that we consider context, historicity, rhetorical features and generic form, active engagement between reader and that which is written, and the expectation that we can hold complex ideas for later consideration and reflection. In a society in which we are given the awesome task of governing ourselves and determining the direction of our culture, such a logic is, Postman convincingly argues, not only useful, but absolutely necessary.

Postman’s critique of television (a critique that seems all the more prophetic 30 years later, in the age of social media) is not that television contains bad content; to the contrary, he celebrates the ways in which television can be entertaining and help us to escape from the humdrum and burdensome aspects of our lives. But television’s logic–instant gratification, de-contextualization, an expectation of forgetfulness, and tacit approval of anticipated and expected disruptions to linear, logical exposition–does not provide us with the type of sober, nuanced reflectiveness necessary to engage the awesome responsibility of self-governance. Television’s epistemology is that of un-reflective entertainment, rather than highly-reflective consideration. If television was merely a vehicle for delivering entertainment (or, I would add, art, as teleplays can be artistic just as a novel or drama or poem or symphony can), this would not be an issue. But in an age and era where television–and now, social media–are our primary vehicles for relaying “truth” (and even “Truth”) and those things we need to know and consider in order to enact self-governance properly, we are faced with the deep insufficiency of television for this task.

Postman asserts that the late 20th century was afraid of the Orwellian world of 1984, with its totalitarian governance and thought-policing foisted upon us from without. He argues that was an error, as what we should have feared was the world Huxley outlines in Brave New World, in which we unthinkingly and voluntarily give up self-governance so as to pursue pleasure. This vision, for Postman, is the logical end of an epistemologically televisual culture.

Postman makes clear that we cannot get rid of television, of course–and we shouldn’t. Rather, we should simply understand its logic, pull back the curtain, understand it not to be magical, and rule it, instead of it ruling us; it should be an entertainment and escapist medium, rather than an epistemological shaper. This was Postman’s suggestion and argument some three decades ago. Unfortunately, it seems as if we are only further down the path Postman saw, getting ever-closer to the situation of WALL-E, a movie I wish Postman would have lived long enough to see.

Even more of a clarion call than when it was first written, this is a significant book that deserves to be read and shared.

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