#CBR4 Maneuver #23 – Amusing Ourselves to Death

Target: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Profile: Non-fiction, Epistemology, Sociology

Summary: From goodreads.com, “Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals.”

After Action Report:

Non-fiction is never easy to review.  An informed author should be an authority on the subjects he or she is writing about, so it can be difficult to confront the author’s logic unless the reviewer is an expert too.  The problem is magnified with time.  Even if I were an authority on epistemology and education today, would those perspectives really be able to critique the ideas put forth thirty years ago?  I may be able to analyze writing style and form, but a critique of content is difficult at best and always extremely subjective.

Still, after reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I cannot help but disagree with a few of Postman’s arguments.  Some of what he is saying has been made obsolete by time, but a few of his attacks on our television culture are just wrong or ill-formed.  There is an extremely valid criticism of the modern news broadcast here, but a few pieces of Postman’s argument are contradictory or flawed enough to bring the whole book into question.

But let’s start at the beginning.  Amusing Ourselves to Death is a long-form lecture on the idea that culture of America is better reflected by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than it is by George Orwell’s 1984.  Ours is a society that is gorging itself on entertainment and as a result, stagnating.  Postman argues that the constant stream of useless information from the television and the culture of entertainment are degrading our ability to think rationally and analyze information.  His principle argument is that television is a medium that in unable to explore topics thoroughly, but must constantly be moving on to the next topic to keep the audience interested.  Without contextual information, we are unable to form our own opinions and the notion of rational debate is cast aside in favor of emotional reactions.

Anyone who’s watched the news and felt their reactions being affected by a piece of music or an impressive graphic can’t help but understand this argument.  Television is a tool of emotional manipulation and the need to hold an audience forces producers to create spectacle, rather than informative discourse.  Postman contrasts the culture of television with the culture of typography that our nation was founded under.  He argues that printed information is objectively better because it promotes organizational and analytical thinking.  Early Americans were steeped in literary culture which made them better equipped to understand complex ideas, both in politics and in the sciences.  Furthermore, because of the limitations of information transmission, early Americans had a much more contextual understanding of their world.  They may not have had a global perspective, but every piece of information they acquired was more relevant to their daily lives.

This is the core of Postman’s book.  It is a strong argument that is well researched and presented.  He even admits that television is a wonderful tool for entertainment and hedges his critique of television programming by saying that there is little wrong with the dramatic and comedic shows that dominate primetime.  His attack is focused on news coverage, televised religion and ‘educational’ programming.  This creates some interesting contradictions in Postman’s core argument.

Postman praises the art of prepared expository speaking, particularly the format of debate practiced by Lincoln and Douglass, as well as the sermons of 18th and 19th century revivalist Christians.  These same traditions and styles are most easily found in modern television dramas where actors deliver prepared text with skill and grace.  In fact, if one eliminates commercials from a television broadcast, there is very little difference between television dramas and some of the greatest pieces of literary fiction, such as Brave New World, the fiction at the core of Postman’s book.  Postman’s arguments hinge on a belief that television is incapable of delivering the same experience found in literature.  But if quality isn’t a factor, is there really a marked difference between reading a novel and enjoying a DVD of that same story?  HBO’s version of The Game of Thrones would seem to stand in opposition of Postman. The alternative is an argument that expands the blame to all entertainment, regardless of medium, but such an argument would reject Shakespeare and reality television in equal measure.

Of course, it’s been nearly 25 years since Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death and the media landscape has changed.  The televised news has come under constant attack for exactly the things that Postman accused it of.  Writers and producers are realizing that television offers the ability to tell more complex and compelling stories than movies, so Hollywood has begun stagnating while strong television dramas and comedies are becoming the medium for social discourse.  We are rejecting the notions that a television show needs to be serial to be watchable and that we must craft our entertainment for the masses.  Our use of television has evolved to exploit a larger portion of the potential that was inherent in the technology.

We have also begun to shift from the visual medium of television, back to a typographical medium of the internet, where information can be contextualized with a few additional keystrokes.  Is the effort of looking up the historical context a news story online so much different than the effort of reading a book on the subject?  Ultimately, the answer to that question is based entirely on the individual and the effort they are willing to put into bettering themselves.

I think the critical flaw in Postman’s argument is that a medium cannot entirely define a culture.  Society has a responsibility to define how a medium is used.  To say that television will be the downfall of our culture is to reject the potential of both our society and the technology we use.  It is far more plausible that our technology vastly outstripped our ability make use of it, leaving us with a version of that technology which was doing more harm than good.  Postman’s vision of a present, and a future, dominated by television was a pessimistic one, and one that we are already working to refute.  Yes, the way in which we experience the world has been fundamentally changed by communication, but I firmly believe that we are capable of adapting to this glut of information.  If Postman believes that information without context is useless, we must simply learn to do the contextualizing ourselves and we will be better because of it.

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Posted on July 7, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I had read several books and articles by Postman during undergrad–Technopoly likely ranking as his most significant work–and came swiftly to the conclusion that he was something of a Luddite blowhard. It is difficult in our current media landscape to take his arguments seriously, and yet he continues to be cited at length.

  1. Pingback: Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #23: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman « Cannonball Read IV

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