Thursday, April 19, 2012

Amusing Ourselves to Death

     It’s been twenty seven years since Niel Postman wrote his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And while it has sold a quarter million copies, its influence has been marginal, as America’s love-affair with the TV has only swelled to new heights since Postman first decried it.   But if Postman attempted to reverse America’s favorite pastime, one cannot fault him too much for failing, as stopping it’s tide is about as difficult as preventing a flood with a bucket of sponges. 

     Why is this the case?

     Because if there is one problem with American’s, it is this: We are addicted to amusement and entertainment. 

     Every educated high-school kid should have read both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.   Although both of these authors warned of totalitarian control, the dystopias they articulated are profoundly different.  Orwell described individuals being oppressed by outside, active control.  Huxley, on the hand, described individuals voluntarily forfeiting their rights in return for circus and bread.  If the people don’t mind the State dictating their lives, it is only because they have been narcotized into bliss.  The question is, which scenario will pan out, if one at all? 

     Postman argues that the answer to this question does not revolve around which policies the Government will implement, but rather the environmental influences technology will exert.  Specifically, he argues that is the Television that will ultimately prove Huxley right; if we do ever get swept into oblivion, it will be because we dance and dream into it, rather than march into it single-filed with handcuffs.   

     In his indictment of TV, Postman rips to shreds the notion that all technology is “morally neutral.” Technology does more than just increase economic efficiency; it straddles intellectual and moral implications as well.  The specific medium (technology) a society uses for its inter-communications has radical consequences for the level of discourse it has. A strictly oral culture will feature different legal and intellectual structures than a culture dominated by the printing press, which in turn will be different from one dominated by TV and radio.  For example, if one were to settle a dispute in an oral society, one would seek a seer who had memorized thousands of aphorisms, which he would cycle through until he found one that is applicable to the dispute.  In a world with the printing press, a dispute would be settled by consulting a lawyer who had devoted his lifetime to studying the written, systematic law. The world of TV would do the same, with the added benefit of televising it for entertainment. 

     The technological medium also exacts its toll on the national discourse as well.  The written word allows someone to convey far more complex concepts than the spoken word.   The printing press changed the world by flooding it with novel ideas, complex concepts, and thus created (relatively) rational discourse. The medium not only spread the available information to a wider audience, it changed the character of the content as well.  In the case of the printing press, the character of the content laid the groundwork for advancing civilization. 

     The advent of TV also had consequences for society.  When information can be transmitted at the speed of light, the news is going to be far more trivial and present-oriented (more ephemeral and less important) than when it takes a week to send by messenger.  And information that is clouded by a vast array of visual images will be different from the information contained in a book.  Technology has consequences, and not always good ones. 

     Television makes you stupid.   It’s inane, trivial, and mind-numbing.  And it’s not just the junk either; what’s surprising is that the more serious its subject matter, the more it will corrupting its influence will be.  Everybody falls for entertainment.  Entertainment under its real name won’t be the death of us, (no, just for you). But entertainment under the guise of intellectual discourse will be. 

     Earlier this morning, I heard someone talk about how the Obama administration criticized the fact that Romney had strapped his dog and its cage on top of his car while on vacation.  (OK, I probably have a few details off. Who cares?) After hearing this I couldn’t help but think that we are amusing ourselves to death.  Why on earth would the media mention this? Why would people listen to it? Certainly not to deepen one’s thinking or to expand one’s applicable knowledge base.  The only purpose this political gossip serves is the same as celebrity gossip: Entertainment. 

     That’s just it.  TV will turn anything it touches into pure, mindless entertainment.  It’s so much easier to watch shows concerning politics, religion, economics, sports, history, and education than it is to read books about them because the former is invariably dumbed-down to exist for your own amusement.  Hence we believe that we are discussing serious matters even when we’re not thinking at all. 

     And there lies the problem the TV poses to America: TV is Reason’s kryptonite, as it enshrouds even the most intellectually-stimulating matters with an acid cloak of superficiality, entertainment, and free-goodie, destroying in the process every remnant of rationality and deep-thinking.  TV, by its epistemological nature, can never be the medium for rational discourse that the written word is.   

Some of you may take refuge in the argument that TV is good because it makes good information wide and available.  I will dismiss such naiveté with a quote by Hannah Arendt:

     "This state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture: its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed: there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say." 

     Although referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she may as well have mentioned political theory, religion, history, sociology, and education as well.  Things can survive neglect, but can they retain their integrity when they have been made compatible with the TV?

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