Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

In a nutshell, Orwell was wrong; Huxley was right. We aren't in danger of government (or anyone else) restricting the amount of information we receive, or keeping us ignorant in order to control us. Instead, television has changed the face of all public discourse so that we're no longer capable of anything but being entertained. All the information is there, but it no longer means anything. The areas Postman addresses in particular are politics, religion, and education.

Postman's writing style is articulate, well-researched, informative ... and unfortunately, a little bit dull. But that's partly the point—he argues that we're largely incapable of thinking about things that aren't amusing. Although it may at first glance sound like he's just another one of these full-of-himself academics ranting about the decline of American culture, Postman digs a little deeper and argues that it's not the content of television that's the problem, but the way that television has affected the way we communicate. And get out your dictionary—he uses words like "epistemological" frequently; the one sentence that appears to be his attempt at a joke is a reference to Hegel teaching the dialectical method. Har, har.

It is fascinating to read about early American culture, and to consider the world before television, photography, and even the telegraph. News traveled at a maximum speed of 35 mph; the literacy rate for men in New England was as high as 95 percent. It does seem a shame to consider that America, founded by a group of intellectuals, has now "recovered."

Some of his arguments are a little hard to accept—that "Sesame Street" is bad, for instance. But that's only an example of how television influences education, rather than the other way around. As for politics, he implies that voting for the "best man for the job" is a bad idea, when in fact we ought to vote along party lines—it's not an opinion I would have expected him to hold. He also argues that today's "news" is overwhelmingly useless information, and that the telegraph created the phenomenon. As he puts it, just because Texas can now have a conversation with Maine doesn't mean they really have anything worth talking about.

He doesn't really offer any real solutions to the problem—he admits that there's really no way that Americans will stop watching TV, shut down the networks, or anything that drastic. Instead, he encourages us to think about the effects of television on the way we learn, the ways we define knowledge and truth; asking such questions helps to break the spell. That, and really bad television—perhaps one the more surprising statements Postman makes is that television is most dangerous when it tries to be serious; but a little mindless entertainment never hurt anyone.

The book was originally published in 1985, when Reagan ("a former Hollywood actor") was president. Reality television did not exist; nobody had heard of the World Wide Web; Harry Potter had not become a media juggernaut. His examples of various figures (pastors, politicians, and professors) trying to entertain are laughable by today's standards. I'd be interested to read something a little more current, to see what Postman has to say about today's culture.

Too much television is something I've always been concerned about, but this book helped me to think about how television can be dangerous, and when it's not. It also points out the ways that television affects even the parts of our lives that we think aren't directly related. It's not light reading, but worth the effort.

The revolution was televised. We saw it, changed the channel, and promptly forgot.

Fed to jonathan's brain | September 28, 2003