AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: Meet Neil Postman
Whenever Becky and I walk after dark, we can often see the flicker of televisions in people’s homes. And the TVs keep getting bigger! It’s a reminder how much the television dominates and saturates our lives. What are the effects of this on the average person, and on the American family?
Enter Neil Postman. In 1985, Postman (then a professor at New York University—he’s since died in 2003) wrote a book that’s become a classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business. The book begins with a talk Postman gave at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984—he was participating in a panel to discuss George Orwell’s book 1984. Postman made the argument that the contemporary world was better reflected in Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, rather than in Orwell’s work, where the public was oppressed by state control.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman set out to analyze the medium of television as an epistemology. He wants to pick up where Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher, whose work is among the cornerstones of the study of media theory, left off; namely, that the medium is the message! Postman writes:
To say it as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography, and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the context of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television.
Postman goes on to describe how the medium of television has dramatically altered how people view reality. It has transformed how we think and talk. The name of the game [on television] is to keep everything brief, fast paced, and lively—that’s the nature of the medium. In effect, we are amusing ourselves to death. Television conditions us to see bite-sized as best, and to avoid complexity. We jump from topic to topic within seconds. We can go from a murder mystery to a commercial about laxatives, to a “news update” about an earthquake and back to the murder mystery. Postman wants to explore what this does to someone. His point is that people who consume television (and video games) lose the ability to think critically, or even to think much at all.
Postman is critical of what television does to the news in general. As far as the news industry goes, television conditions us to ingest rapidly moving, bite-size nuggets of information, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are then “informed.” He argues that being “informed” is the opposite of being wise. Being wise is the result of reading, extended thinking and reflection.
Postman is especially critical of what television does to religious programing. He argues that television,
Does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a result, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their preferred players become celebrities. Though the sermons are trivial, the shows have ratings, or rather, because the sermons are trivial, the shows have high ratings.
Postman then delivers his final blow, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Well said.