Still Amusing Ourselves To Death

Several months ago, a friend recommended a book (all my friends seem to recommend books to me, I assume as a form of torture) in a group Slack channel that we all avoid work with. That book was Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman, a book old by today’s standards (first published in 1985). It is about the author’s concern about the downfall of Western Civilization with the onset of the Age of Television. Heady stuff. I put in a request for the book at the Plano Library since they had a copy and it came up for loan about three weeks ago. Most of the time, I would have attempted to read the book, gotten slightly bored or very distracted, and moved on. But this book struck a chord with me and I managed to finish it in the allotted two week checkout window.

Originally about the cultural changes that television brought to American culture and political discourse, the book rings quite true today. Postman’s main thesis was that because television is designed around images and because images are by their nature decontextualized from any cohesive context, television was radically restructuring our civilization to be incapable of serious thought or discourse. In my mind, Postman’s fears were both accurate and incomplete. What television began, the Internet fully realized, specifically social media and the delivery of “news” to most people via that medium.

Postman was singularly concerned with our growing inability to have serious conversations about much of anything because the medium of television naturally controlled and guided what things we were capable of talking about. This idea isn’t novel to Postman as he notes in the book. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” and Noam Chomsky has built a legacy on how mass media controls and frames what we believe. However, Postman fully fleshed out the idea that the medium of television had a direct impact on what topics we as a civilization were capable of discussing in the public sphere.

Because television was built to appeal to the most people possible and because it was built on images and not language, it set guardrails around what the sphere of available discourse was.

To put it plainly, television is the command center of the new epistemology. There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most important of all, there is no subject of public interest—politics, news, education, religion, science, sports—that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television.

Postman, p.78.

The discussion of all these subjects of public interest began to be shaped by the biases of television, namely that everything was a performance and that credibility (or the appearance thereof) held more importance than reality. Postman talks deeply about the debates between Lincoln and Douglas where the two men talked and debated before an audience for long hours and the audience NEVER GOT BORED. Contrast that with the debates of the last election cycle, where answers to questions were time boxed to single digit minutes or less in a format that would seem almost Twitter-like in its brevity. The debates of today are about the appearance of winning and not about any serious logical issues that a candidate might bring up. This has happened because the medium of television (and I’d argue social media even more so) has biases that shape and frame the topics that appear there.

Today, Postman’s views seem both prescient and quaint. We just finished a four year Presidential cycle with a celebrity in the starring role, a role he was shockingly well built for. During that time, the media through TV and social media further polarized the American people. The American people have apparently lost all ability to deeply engage in moral and political issues. Our entire national discourse and attention span is built around disinformation and decontextualized beliefs. While there is plenty of blame to go round, I believe most of the problems lie in our mediums of information and their design.

Children grow up on social media. The ad economy controls and directs, with or without our consent (Chomsky would say most definitely without) and we are impotent in our actions because the events that impact us are decontexualized from reality. We joke about how short our attention spans are never bothering to realize how critical deep, intellectual discourse is to full understanding and power. One has to assume Postman would be appalled with the state of Western Civilization. Mass media frames and controls our understanding of the world and it is almost entirely performance art, devoid of context of history or depth of understanding.

So what can be done about it? Postman worried that the horse had left the barn regarding TV and it is even worse now. However, odd as it sounds, I think a return to active antitrust enforcement as it relates to the tech giants like Google and Facebook would have a second order effect of limiting the impacts. They are both known to increase polarization because it is in their ad economy based interests. Limiting their monopoly power would help.

A return to localization would also serve us well. Small, diverse communities that governed, provided for and protected each other would expand the options for discourse and discussion. By focusing on the nearby, those events that do not matter to us or that we can take no action on would fall farther down our attention span. The fact that we are currently bombarded with news upon which we can take no action at all is a major contributor to our depression, our anxiety and the impotency we live with. Our local communities are the only sphere of influence that we really have and by focusing on them instead of random events that happen in other states or countries, we could begin to expand beyond our current experiment with extreme polarization.

But it’s hard to be optimistic about the chances. Our national discourse has been reduced even further since Postman’s book to the point where politicians posting sound bytes on Twitter are considered the norm. It is hard to see a large majority of Americans deciding that they need to deepen their knowledge of anything when avoiding that depth is so much more entertaining. Postman’s work was a harbinger of a much darker time in the development of our national discourse. Where we go from here does not seem likely to be in a more promising direction.