I shall open this review with the original foreword to the late, great Neil Postman’s most famous and enduring work ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business’ written and released way back in 1985.
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
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. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked 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”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Now, it is also in the foreword to the 20th anniversary edition of this book that a very important and cogent question regarding the audience of this kind of book might expect to find is asked. That foreword, written by Neil Postman’s son, Andrew Postman, asks that now with the ever increasing multitude of books written every day, and the ever decreasing amount of time (not to mention attention span) that the modern reader has to offer, why should anyone nowadays bother reading a current events book written nearly thirty years ago? And if one were to consider reading such a book, why choose one whose main crux is the criticizing of a medium, in television, that has long since been supplanted in importance and social relevance by technological advances such as the Internet, Tablets, Smart Phones, and other inventions that most people could not have even dreamed of at the time of said book’s writing? To be sure, such a book must be viewed as little more than a quaint timewaster to the modern reader and his busy schedule of checking Facebook statuses, composing his ‘Tweets’, subscribing to his various Blogs of interest and listening to an ever increasing plethora of Podcasts. Somehow though, in spite of all of this, Postman’s book has lived on way past its projected expiration date and has been cited in many academic and other circles as a monumentally important book by people on both sides of the political and religious aisles in America. (1)
To what can we attribute this book’s striking longevity? Neil Postman authored several other topical books in his lifetime such as ‘The End of Education’, and ‘Technopoly’ among others, all of them worth checking out if you are interested in their subject matter, but none of them so thoroughly punctured through to so many of the general public’s long standing predispositions and left behind such a lasting cultural and literary legacy as this one did. This was truly his magnum opus and also the cream of the crop as far as media polemics is concerned. Indeed, many commentators now look back on this work as being hugely prophetic in its predictions of the kind of adverse effects a people whose main source of knowledge about the world is made up almost entirely of what they see on television can have on a nation and society in general.
From the news to politics, to religion and childhood education, no important segment of civilization is left unexamined here as far as their relationship with the old ‘Boob Tube’ is concerned. Postman does a very detailed job of laying out the history of humanity’s means and methods of communicating with one another and the direct effect it had on helping (or in later cases, hindering) the evolution of the human mind and it’s ability to think and converse rationally with other human minds. The entire history of human communication is covered in quick but altogether very lucid and engaging detail, from the vast impact the invention of an alphabetically based language had on ancient humans, to the equally enormous effect of the printing press to people in the 15th century, to the now often overlooked effects of inventions such as the telegraph and the photograph (which has a language all its own according to Postman, the same language now communicated by television) in the 19th century and of course, finally to the invention of radio and television in the 20th century.
The first half of the book is spent mostly taking us on a journey of the evolution of human thought and communication during the age of ‘Typography’. It was during this time when print was the only means with which people had to communicate ideas to other people who were separated from them by either too much time or distance to speak to them orally that, Postman states, the true golden age of thought and reason occurred. Indeed the ‘Age of Reason’ and the ‘Renaissance’ both took place in the immediate aftermath of the invention of the printing press. Furthermore, as Postman points out the population that existed in America in the 18th and 19th century were perhaps the most well read group of individuals who ever lived. They fed daily on local newspapers and books of all sorts (the Bible most prominently though), and engaged in the sort of lengthy and passionately intellectual town hall debates we can only wistfully look back upon now in the age of the televised political debates in which candidates who are running for the privilege to represent us and our interests in Washington are given a mere 30 seconds or less to give their entire opinion on matters ranging from foreign affairs, economics, education, and the like, lest they interfere with the regularly scheduled business of the advertising companies paying for their platform.
After reading this book you will never be able to look at television news the same way again. Now keep in mind, when this book was written, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were not even yet in their infancies, so these libelous charges were being thrown against what is now looked back fondly upon as a better era of television journalism, compared to which, today’s traveling circus of inane talking heads and endless stream of useless information cannot even hold a candle. In this way Postman is again prophetic, as what we call the news on television has gradually degraded over the last few decades to a tremendous degree. We have the aforementioned invention of the telegraph to thank for this, Postman writes, as before that invention, newspapers were more concerned with getting stories correct than getting them in fast, and the actual content of the stories themselves were usually something relevant to the reader’s lives as opposed to the sordid personal details of people who live thousands of miles away. With the advent of the telegram, and later telephone, and radio, information that used to take weeks and months to travel from region to region, arrived instantly and so people were flooded with stories from all over the world.
The trouble with this is of course these stories are divorced from their original context, and the impact they have upon the mind of the recipient of said news is generally tantamount a giant bag of ‘Who gives a crap?’… Now with the advent of television, that bag of crap has been multiplied many times over as we are treated to more and more asinine and pointless stories than we can shake our collective stick at. I am reminded of the George Carlin bit about the reporting of Mickey Mouse’s birthday as if it were an actual event every year on broadcast news. “No wonder nobody in the world takes our country seriously anymore.” Carlin said, “We waste valuable air time informing our citizens on the age of an imaginary rodent! If I cared about Mickey Mouse’s birthday I would have memorized it years ago. And I’d send him a card, ‘Dear Mickey, Happy Birthday, Love George’. I don’t do that. Why? Don’t give a shit! F**k Mickey Mouse!” (2)
Imagine the reaction you would have if while conversing with someone you originally took to be a sane and rational human being, he were to describe to you in the exact same cheerful and disconnected cadence, the fact that he just bought a new pair of Nike sneakers, and also that his entire family was just killed in a horrific car accident. You would think him a trifle mad no? And yet this is basically what you have on any TV news broadcast on any night of the week. Murder, bloodshed, political corruption, all mixed in indiscriminately with the occasional pie eating contest, random human interest story, and of course, a commercial break to sell those aforementioned Nike sneakers. And to be sure, much is said about advertising here too, as that is the chief reason for television’s very existence, to sell things to people that they don’t need. As Postman says in the book on page 126 “The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital.” But it is not my intent here to restate Postman’s entire thesis here, or to try to make his argument for him against those wishing for a debate, as that is a job I am in no way equipped to handle as eloquently as he has done here in this book. And furthermore I would agree very much with his quotation of Aldous Huxley where he says “We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it.”
The argument presented here is not your standard diatribe against ‘junk TV’. In fact that is one of the few bits of television culture that gets off relatively easy compared to other genres. As Postman says on page 160 ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.” That he targets Sesame Street might be a shock to some, but the point is not that any of these shows, or the people producing them are deliberately out to misinform or do any kind of intellectual harm to the viewer, but that by the very means of the medium itself, since everything on TV has been designed so that viewers see everything as some form of entertainment, any kind of attempt at actual intelligent discourse will suffer and fail as a result, whether it be in the form of news, or a children’s educational show. Postman spends an entire chapter talking about how television as an entity exists as an elephant in the room as far as education goes. He argues that it is basically an entire curriculum in and of itself, competing, and successfully so, against traditional “book learning” as it used to be known. Consider this quote from page 146. “This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum. As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it.”
In the end this is a frustrating book due to the fact that it provides few answers. Postman was not naïve enough to believe that he could turn the tide against television and back to typography. However, he did end on the high note that the readers of this book should at least now be aware enough of the danger to adjust their lives accordingly. After I finish this review, I am not going to go and bash my television to pieces with a sledge hammer. I will probably most likely in fact sit in front of it for an hour or so before I go to bed tonight. But, I will do so with my defenses up, especially if I should happen across the so called “serious” shows such as the nightly news and the like. In the end, Postman says (paraphrased) the important thing is to remember to remain in control of our possessions and not let them control us, and that could as easily go for the Internet as well as TV. My final recommendation, if you haven’t already done so, you need to read this book sometime before you bite the big one. Even if you disagree vehemently with its theme, the elegance with which Postman puts forth his arguments are reason enough to appreciate this book. It’s one I know I will be re-reading many times to come. That’s all for now, as always, thanks for reading.
- See here the book’s widespread impact here on conservatives, (http://www.intellectualconservative.com/article3933.html) liberals, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/amusing-ourselves-to-deat_b_164154.html) evangelicals (http://secondnaturejournal.com/the-secular-c-s-lewis-neil-postmans-unlikely-influence-on-evangelicals) and atheists (http://www.thinkatheist.com/group/readatheist/forum/topics/amusing-ourselves-to-death-by).
- George Carlin: Back In Town http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0246641/