Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

March 15, 2012

What better time for beginning on one’s New Year’s resolutions than spring break? I propose starting the new year with something I hope will be more interesting (and sustainable) than bad food pictures: reviews. There are already plenty of good food blogs out there, anyway.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, professor, media researcher, and author Neil Postman argues that 1985 realized not Orwell’s but Huxley’s dystopian vision: We live now in a society where politics, history, and culture are irrelevant and laughable because we have created a society of perpetual amusement through television (and, by extension, the internet). Television (and YouTube’s) reduction of political discourse and reasoned argument to soundbites and video clips has made rational choice impossible; the commercial has become the new model for education and politics, relying on image and emotion to move rather than educate viewers; and televangelism has turned even religion into a spectacle without sanctity or meaning. The speed of television “news” floods our lives with irrelevant information that fragments our understanding and makes public discourse “essentially incoherent” (69).*

While it’s sometimes easy to ride along with Postman’s critique, I think that he gives too much importance to media’s role in shaping public discourse and not enough to general cultural shifts. Further, he sometimes seems to succumb to the “television style” himself: He cherry-picks events and incidents as examples of television’s reductive methods and uses a style that is more entertaining than scholarly. While I grant that the medium of communication determines, to some extent, the content of what is said using that medium, I don’t agree that media changes (or determines) everything; I think Postman’s exclusive focus on the shift from print to television ignores other important cultural changes of the past century that were perhaps more relevant to the change in political discourse he describes. I also agree that technology isn’t neutral, or as Postman says more polemically, “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple” (157). But then, Postman’s entire argument is based on the claim that the medium of communication isn’t neutral, that it determines what can be said and how, so the real surprise is how long it takes him to get around to stating this claim (seven pages before the end of the book, if you’re curious). It’s still an important claim to make, though, so I’m glad he finally made it.

Fortunately for us, Postman proposes two solutions to the problem of television, one jokingly and one seriously, and both, I would argue, already completed. So perhaps despite himself, television isn’t that big of a problem, after all. The first - “nonsensical” - proposal was to use television against itself to demonstrate its weaknesses, through a parody show that “show[s] how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc” and which would probably follow the form of Saturday Night Live. Between “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” I think we have this one covered. Postman called this option “nonsensical” because he thought in the end television would co-opt the parody into a farce: “In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the programs vastly amusing […] The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials” (162). Although this may be true of Colbert, Stuart has thus far avoided making movies or commercials and perhaps can be said to fulfill Postman’s plea.

The second proposed solution, the “desperate answer,” was to teach students in school about the powers and problems of television, to educate ourselves out of the mess we’ve created. (Of course, this would have to apply to educating ourselves about the internet, as well.) But I think we’ve also accomplished this in the better school systems; at least, my teachers took great pains to show us that Wikipedia’s answers were no better than, and probably worse than, a conventional encyclopedia’s, and that television never had the real or complete answers. I think that most of us have already learned “how to distance [our]selves from [our] forms of information” (163) such that we can think critically not just about what is said but about how it is said. A tweet is very different from a dissertation, and a blog post from a book, although tweets and blog posts can both become books. Perhaps we should, today, be more wary of print media than of Twitter, since it comes to us in the guise of scholarship but may contain nothing more than what’s trending.

In short, I think Postman’s book provokes some interesting discussion, but isn’t anything to be concerned about. I think we all know by now that the absurd soundbites we hear from the 2012 Republican candidates aren’t the whole story of American political discourse, although it wouldn’t hurt to force them to spell out their views in position papers. I agree that we shouldn’t base our important decisions merely on the information from the pseudo-debates we see on the news. But the internet has made more relevant information more accessible, and so in that sense perhaps it is a partial return to the culture of print. In any case, I think we’ll be ok.

*I think in this last respect, maybe what Postman really hates is the postmodern/ fragmented/ discontinuous qualities of our contemporary experience of the world, which he claims emanates from television, and not television itself. (He does claim consistently that he thinks that purely amusing television, with no pretended serious purpose, is fine.) I don’t think we can pin everything we don’t like about post-modernity on television.