Amusing Ourselves To Death
A Review Essay
If only Neil Postman could see us now. In 1985 the internet was just a glimmer in they eye of the American public, and cable television was just beginning to truly take off after stimulation brought on by The 1984 Cable Act and deregulation. Yet even then, Postman compared the media landscape of the 1980s to Las Vegas, the city of sin and the nation’s capitol of entertainment and frivolity. He warned “We are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death” (1985, p.4). Now it’s 17 years, 300 channels, and millions of websites later, and perhaps some of the prophecies of Postman ring truer today than they did almost 20 years ago, amplified by technological advancements and audience dependency on media. At times, Postman’s words feel like an echo of former Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow, who years ago gave a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention that described the television media landscape as a ‘vaste wasteland’. He posed the question to a group of television executives, asking “Why is so much of television so bad?” (1961). It is a question that seems to be the basis for many of Postman’s thoughts 25 years later.
Postman describes the process and perils of television rapidly displacing the print medium as the primary form of entertainment and public discourse in our society today. We have traded in the written word and its opportunities for the formulation and exchange of ideas for the flashy images and entertainment value we receive from television. The primary danger that Postman identifies is the fact that television, unlike the written word, does not facilitate an involved or intellectual participation on the part of the media consumer. The fleeting images and constantly changing dialogue don’t allow for retrospection or thoughtful consideration. Instead the medium is passively consumed with little thought required and even less thought inspired. The problem, he argues is not for scarcity of the written word as Postman says, “Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them” (1985, Pg. 141). It’s a simple fact that we’ve made our obvious choice leaving books on the shelves to gather dust, and diverting our eyes and ears to the splendors of television.
Postman discusses the dangers of this decision to embrace television and neglect typography through several logical and sound arguments, that were they discussed today would be further exemplified by current technology and the current state of the media industry. In the case of the way in which news is presented through the television medium, he says that it’s obvious it is not to be taken seriously. He argues “Everything about a news show tells us this- the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials- all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis” (1985, Pg. 87). Today, in an increasingly fragmented media landscape, viewers have multiple choices of where to receive their news (if at all). News directors encounter pressure from corporate media ownership who seek to give the viewer what they want to see, as opposed to what they need to see. The result is that we see news shows that look increasingly like entertainment with morning ‘news’, and entertainment shows that look increasingly like news, where particularly younger viewers are receiving the majority of their ‘news’ from a comedian behind a desk. Croteau, Hoynes and Milan refer to this process as the Hollywoodization of news (2012), a process that is intensifying in an increasingly fragmented media landscape that focuses on profit and ratings as opposed to public interest.
Postman also discusses the ramifications that television has had on our political process. Citing the Lincoln-Douglas debates that would often span for upwards of seven hours and of which transcripts read more like a novel than a speech. Would our citizens today have the attention span or the intellectual ability for that kind of political participation today? Postman’s answer is, probably not. Nicolas Carr of The Atlantic describes how the Internet has only intensified what Postman identified as a side effect of television. He says the Internet “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace” (2008). The effect that this shortened attention span has had on our political process is startling. In the age of television, the candidate’s platforms and stances on the issues have little to do with the confidence a voter has in their ability to be a political leader. Their opinion of a candidate is much more largely based on the way their hair looks, their smile, their charisma, and their overall ability to look comfortable on camera. It’s not the reality of a candidate’s credibility that matters; it is the perception of credibility. As Postman asserts, it reaches beyond the idea of perception is reality, replaced by the fact that perception is reality (1985). Where does this leave the validity of our political process? In a precarious place, as Postman explains, “If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude” (1985, Pg. 102). Today, the Internet forces candidates to be ‘on’ and aware of their public image at all times. As we saw in the 2012 Presidential election, one camera phone can record an otherwise private conversation and social media sharing sites can disseminate that information to the public. It is safe to say that Mitt Romney’s 48% speech had a detrimental effect on his image and in the eyes of voters. Today, in the age of the Internet and social media, the image of a political hopeful is even more important and constantly tended to than it was in 1985.
These examples illustrate Postman’s main emphasis throughout his book; the lament of the written word, which has long ago been overshadowed by the age of television. He fears that the two cannot coexist for the sake of public discourse, but the presence of a new medium isn’t a new story. We’ve seen it throughout history; type replaced the spoken word, the spoken word again replaced type with radio, the images of television replaced radio, and it all came full circle when the written word made a comeback through the internet and the digital revolution. It is reminiscent of the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that is often assumed with new technologies: This is going to be the one that changes it all. George Snell describes the idea of magical thinking in the realm of technology perfectly, as he says, “At times it can feel like snake-oil salesmen who promise miraculous cures” (2012). In actuality, technology and its development, much like fashion, is more cyclical than linear. Trends reemerge and we eventually tire of ‘the next best ting’. It seems to me that Postman may not have always seen past this idea of magical thinking towards what was ahead; through some of his examples he saw television as the end all be all of the mass media, and that’s simply not the case. The Internet has given birth to a resurgence of the written word, in those who seek to write it and those who seek to read it. But have the effects of television on our society already caused irreparable damage to our ability and desire to seek out information and participate in meaningful and informed discourse? Postman describes every medium as having a bias (1985, Pg. 85). The printing press had an obvious bias towards words, while radio has a bias towards sound, and television towards images. But where does the internet lie in this discussion of biases? A medium that uses words, images, video and sounds often simultaneously. Does the inability to define the Internet’s bias make it a more powerful medium than its predecessors; a medium that is above and immune from the idea of ‘magical thinking’? Or does it indeed make it even more of a threat to our society and the existence of a meaningful discourse?
Throughout the book, just as technology has bolstered many of Postman’s points, a few of Postman’s arguments seemed to be made weaker due to technological advancements over the years. One could argue against Postman’s assertion that television does not allow its audience the ability to fact check or examine the information that is presented to them in detail. Through technological advancements such as the DVR and the internet, a viewer can now hear something that is questionable, pause what they are watching, and use their computer or smartphone to examine the issue in further detail to determine if something they heard was inaccurate. With the internet, blogs and message boards offer users an outlet to sound off against perceived media inaccuracies, as well participate in the conversation via comment capabilities on news websites. Aside from participating in the conversation about the media, audiences now have the capability to actively participate as content creators, contributing user generated content. The idea that the medium of television is one way and the audience is passive is a concept that has been transformed through technological advancements.
Unlike the printing press, Postman obviously did not view the television as a technology that could contribute to the advancement of society or a spark for social change. He references the printing press as a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation; “With the word of God on every family’s kitchen table, Christians do not require the Papacy to interpret it for them” (1985, Pg. 85). The written word is inarguably a means to spark social change, but it’s not the only means. While television is certainly not going to win a Nobel Prize, Postman underestimates the power that is often behind the images we see on television; after all, ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’. While videos that encourage social activism and participation are not often shown by the mainstream media on traditional television, the internet still has the same properties as a television through sites such as YouTube. Often the images we see in videos that encourage activism are equal to and even more than what would inspire us to change through the written word. Seeing the images of a distended belly of a child without food or the lost home of a flood victim is often more powerful than simply reading about these things. We can see the power of social media and the internet in sparking social change through humanitarian efforts such as Koney 2012 and the protest of Occupy Wall street.
Postman also did not see television as a logical or even effective way of spreading the message of Christianity. He identifies a core commandment that is broken through televangelism, which warns believers against making any graven images or idols for themselves. Postman argues that televangelism does just that, creating teachers that are more like celebrities, and making those teachers and the television the receivers of praise and glory, rather than God, saying “The danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion” (1985, Pg. 124). While I feel that Postman makes some very logical points against televangelism, and I actually agree with him on the many disparities of televangelism, I think his discussion was largely based on personal opinion and conviction, which can not be measured scientifically from person to person. While it is possible and even likely that some televangelists can be idolized and worshiped for who they are and not what they teach, that is highly dependent on the person who is receiving the message. If they have a sound understanding of biblical teachings (which it is very possible that they do not, which is part of Postman’s argument) and if the preacher does not encourage idolization of any earthly person or object, the medium should not supersede the message. My mind immediately goes to the elderly or the invalid who do not have the opportunity to attend a church service. If they watch a service on television, does it automatically mean that the message was tainted because of the medium in which it was viewed? Postman says, “there are several characteristic of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible” (1985, Pg. 118). I will respectfully disagree with Postman, as a religious experience is something that is measured internally and differs from person to person. His argument is based on the assumption that the we are unable to separate the feelings we associate with television caused by the negative content it so often shows, with the feelings we should have during a religious experience. Postman says, “The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be associated as a frame for sacred events. To this I will counter that the world is a profane place; the world is obsessed with being entertained and amused, and yet where did Jesus preach: In the world. Though I agree that it is more difficult to have a true religious experience through teachings on television, I will not attest to the fact that it is impossible. The Internet along with message boards and blogs allow audience members to reach out and connect with each other now, unlike in 1985 when they were being reached through one-way communication of the television. Audiences are not just passively receiving everything that is delivered to them through their television sets. Receivers of televangelism have the ability to achieve what Croteau, Hoynes and Milan refer to as active audience interpretation (2012), in order to shape their own religious experience in response to televangelism. Now, through the Internet, they have the opportunity to reach out, ask questions, and even worship with a community of believers via blogs, message boards, or ministry websites.
Identifying the change from typography to television as the prophetic end of an intelligent society is an argument that has been both bolstered and complicated by technological advancements such as the Internet. However, after reading this book it is obvious that the thoughts and ideas of Postman were ahead of his time. While our society is still highly dependent on television as a source of entertainment, the Internet brings a resurgence in the written word, though the medium through which it is delivered offers simultaneous distractions and amusements. Postman made the assertion in 1985 that, “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world,” (1985, Pg. 106) countering the widely believed fact that television would help us to be more informed about the world around us. The Internet was a tool that had the ability to change everything, opening our borders and expanding our opportunities to attain knowledge, much like what was the hope for television in its infancy. But the fact remains that while these opportunities for information are available to us, it is disinformation, as Postman describes, that we seek. “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information-misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information- information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing” (1985, 107). It is our inability to place priority on the relevant over the irrelevant, the sincere over the superficial, that will continue to plague us as a society that as Postman predicted, is amusing ourselves to death.
Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic. Retrieved November 12, 2012, From http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society: Industries, images, and audiences. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.
Minnow, Newton. (1961). Television and the Public Interest. Retrieved November 17, 2012, From http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm.
Postman, Neil. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York, New York: Penguin Group.
Snell, George. (2012) Social media will not cure cancer. High Talk. Retrieved November 20, 2012, From http://hightalk.net/2012/05/15/social-media-will-not-cure-cancer/.