I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, about three decades too late. It is easy to see why the premise of the book continues to raise contention today. To the modern reader, it may momentarily feel dated; in its conclusion, it focuses on the ravaging of the television on our ability to think and reflect (arguably a past issue, but an issue that has been superseded by others of similar nature). He relies heavily on the old tag that “the medium is the message,” though he includes some significant qualifications which I believe save his work from the growing pile of unevenly rancorous and unforgiving societal jeremiads. In short, it is to miss his point to denigrate entirely any single mode of communication. Rather, we must understand that certain mediums of communication are more applicable to different styles of discourse, especially in how they communicate and contextualize “knowledge” or “truth.” Furthermore, while different cultures and eras may be characterized by different primary mediums of communication, these mediums are generally overlapping in use, character, and substance. Communicative mediums promote tendencies, not full-scale prisons of thought incapable of variety. Nevertheless, to miss these influences is dangerous. For example, smoke signals have their utility, but are not conducive to philosophical discourse. To conduct philosophical discourse primarily in smoke signals would powerfully alter and deprive the nature of that discourse, especially at a popular level.
Postman begins with an historical takes on communicative mediums. Oral cultures, he argues, rely heavily on sages and wisemen to memorize relevant proverbs and stories and apply them with wisdom in generally local and specific contexts. Proverbs and stories allow for easier memorization and dissemination, thus they attempt to pack vast wisdom into bite-sized and consumable aphorisms. However, such use of oral, time-tested, traditional aphorisms are viewed as quaint in a typographical society, enamored especially by the capability of the mass production of the written word. Contrastingly, the written word values careful, analytic thought progression. Plato likely recognized the great mental shifts that would occur with shifting philosophy to the written word, which brings the oddity of addressing an unseen audience and forever concretizing one’s thoughts, disallowing for later development and explanation (a final systematizing of truth which Plato did not care for) and robbing the interlocutors of the ability to converse to achieve understanding. Yet, on the other hand, the written word immortalizes and spreads relevant conversation over geography and time, and is therefore an inevitable and ultimately worthy enterprise in its own right, even by Plato’s reckoning.
Postman argues strongly that the United States in its founding was created by an educated elite, and is quite uniquely in world history the child of Enlightenment era thought. The United States, even more than the European populace, in both religious sensibility and democratic spirit, was a highly typographic, written-word based society. This culture dominated by the written word taught men and women (who also indulged in literacy in the New World) to prize coherence, reason, and meaningful argument about immediately relevant topics for its interlocutors. When one also considers the vastly Protestant culture of early America, the divine requirement to read the Bible certainly would have bolstered the absolute expectation of popular literacy. Importantly for Postman, in the earliest stages of written word culture, “news” as we consider it, usually manifested at the local level as something with imminent impact to the small communities who would receive it. Postman goes on to argue that the innovation of the newspaper (which profits on sensationalism) conjoined with the invention of the telegraph (and all forms of immediate long distance communication) morphed the “news” into something closer to sloganeering, in which it was more valued to know of news than about news. News began to shift from encompassing singular events that would occur once every few weeks or months to a daily litany of events that the journalist determined were significant and marketable. Gradually, the news tended toward the sensational, not the immediately relevant, thoughtful, and meaningful.
The final piece to this puzzle was the advent of photography, which amassed imagery as means of communication. Images provide relatable context to the otherwise (presumably) irrelevant and distant news, and they offer a reality without proposition or argument. Pictures grant a particular slice of reality always and necessarily detached from its context; significantly, pictures cannot be argued with, merely accepted. (Think of zooming out from a murder-scene photograph to encompass in detail the entire United States. While the picture of the murder itself somewhat suggests that the horror of murder consumes reality, the zoomed out image would leave the murder as a trivial likely unnoticeable event. Neither perspective is fully true or untrue, but in relation to one another, we can begin to grasp the missing nuances of the medium. However, in sensationalist news, the purpose is to only offer you the former perspective. One may say in this sense images offer an “argument” in that they present a state of reality, though in a different manner than the written word.) Postman extrapolates on this point utilizing Boorstin’s “pseudo-event.” A pseudo-event is defined as a picture or story that is taken or prompted for the sake of creating a news event. This would include any photograph or event orchestrated with the effect of producing “news” in mind. Postman coins the phrase “pseudo-context,” a circumstance which encourages pseudo-events by fostering a need to sell the irrelevant as news. In his words, “The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.” We are perhaps the first culture to be confronted with the problem of an overabundance of information. Postman ends the first part of his book by claiming that the television is the pinnacle of this shift in style and epistemological understanding of the world (he is writing in 1985). The fact that these new modes of learning and knowing are no longer experienced as either strange or empowering but rather as fundamental and obvious should be enough to show that the mode of thought that an image medium encourages has reached into the core of our psyche, where it rests without serious criticism.
The second half of Postman’s book is worth reading in detail for the fullness of his arguments, but I will cover in brief his variety of concerns. According to Postman, entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. Thinking is not good performance. Debate and intellectual exercise as performance do not afford for true discussion or reflection; the nature of television lends to shifting and exciting imagery, not slow contemplation. In terms of persons, it leads to the oft-lamented cult of celebrity. In terms of truth conveyance, television holds more highly the sincere, authentic, vulnerable, and emotional impressions of persons than the coherence or profundity of any message about which these impressions circulate. As one television executive notes, “bite-sized is best… complexity must be avoided… nuances are dispensable… qualifications impede the simple message… visual stimulation is a substitute for thought… verbal precision is an anachronism.” In the mind of the television viewer, serious and worthwhile thought becomes wedded to the entertaining. “Thinking” is fed to me with little work on my part, no deep expectations of background knowledge, and always with a focus on entertaining and tantalizing my senses.
Postman goes on to address in detail the advent of tele-evangelism, commercialization, televised politics, and educational programming. Much of what skews the medium of television away from possible religious use has already been mentioned, but worth writing is that it fails to create sacred space, and in fact religious programming is secularized by the holistically secularized context of both the common living environment in which television is watched and the nature of the television itself. Religious programming works better as an entertainment medium than as a mean of personal evangelism and worship. The preacher is the raison d’être of the experience; not God. In terms of capitalism, commercials utilize the image and the discomfort of the buyer to sell products, as opposed to appealing to a consumer’s rational decision making. Businesses now conduct pseudo-therapy with their commercials by means of mythological psycho-dramas through which the consumer can find comfort. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace who uses irony to reveal these aspects of the commercial, which is again undermined as commercials utilize that very irony in their own pitches. Identity sells. The commercial effectively expresses the consumer; it gives the consumer identity and the feeling that the identity is not only good, but also necessary for happiness, peace, joy, etc. In the political spectrum, politics become about image projection, and political discourse need be instantaneous and entertaining (thus the inanity of “debates” which grant the candidates only 5 minute or less timeframes in which to speak). Lengthy expositions and difficult literature are largely ignored; they are not entertaining enough to hold the attention span. The fear of censorship becomes a fear designated to pre-technical societies; it is not that books are becoming banned so much as books are becoming irrelevant. In a similar vein, history loses its once obvious relevance to the common thought as the televised medium promotes the dominance of the present moment and the most updated “news.” Educational programming inevitably conjoins education with amusement and entertainment. Cicero believed that the goal of education was to free the young from the tyranny of the present; television hopes entirely to conform the mind to just that. Televised education has three rules: it must be self-contained–requiring no hierarchy of educational needs or prerequisite knowledge; it must avoid perplexity–simplicity leads to viewer contentment; and it must avoid careful and lengthy exposition and thoughtful dialogues—stories are much preferred to reasoned argument.
In the final analysis, Postman’s only half-hearted answer to combating the effects of the television set is education, though he immediately recognizes the pitfalls of simply asserting “better education” as a means to fixing anything. I would imagine Postman’s criticism would gain hardy agreement among the more conservative minded, while likely striking the more neoliberal among us as overblown. I think this book tends to be marketed and discussed in hasty generalization as a traditionalist attack on television. I think even a mildly charitable reading of the book reveals Postman is simply more nuanced than that. We are not in the realm of dystopian fear-mongering, but he clearly calls attention to how mediums and communicative models shape our thinking habits, which both the left and right leaning should recognize. From a personal standpoint, bringing Postman to the modern day, the obvious question is how does social media addiction re-form my ability to think? While one could argue that the internet has returned us to more typographical mediums of communication (Twitter is conducted in type after all), I think there is more to be considered.