Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Recently in conversation I wondered aloud if we as a society weren't amusing ourselves to distraction. The internet in general and the microscopic attention spans of Twitter and chatting and text messaging was the source.  As I said the phrase it struck a wrong note to my ear.  Where had I heard it?  Why did it sound wrong? Of course I had to turn to the internet for clarification and instant gratification and discovered that I had incorrectly remembered the source as a title of a book I'd read long ago, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman.

Written in 1985 as an examination of how television has reformed our ability to think and communicate, Postman's thesis was that fifty years earlier two literary minds imagined tow distinctly different visions of the future. The more popular one (perhaps because it had the ticking time bomb in its title) was George Orwell's 1984 which postulated a dark world where Big Brother was watching and personal autonomy no longer existed and books would be banned. The other was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which posed an alternate view, that we would find ourselves in a society that provided us with so much stimuli that we would be reduced to passivity and not care about books.  It was Postman's theory that television had brought us closer to Huxley's vision than any of us had imagined while we were too busy worrying about Orwell's warnings.

Curious to see what I remembered and what I'd forgotten, I was happy to see that Amusing Ourselves to Death had been re-released to coincide with its 20th anniversary, and that it was as startlingly relevant in addressing our current fixation with the internet.  I was also both amused and encouraged that my local library shelved this new paperback edition in the non-fiction YA section of the library.  Indeed, if there is an audience ripe for the history of our electronic culture and where it might be leading us, it would be teens and young adults.
 The first part of the book is a general background in how our media for communication evolved from a verbal to a written one.  To be fair, this section can run pretty dry, especially as he digs in and discusses the importance of the printing press and reading on the early American settlers and the oratory styles of Lincoln's age.  Those who like to see history from a different perspective might appreciate this, but Postman's point is to show how we evolved, and how quickly, once technology changed the landscape.  The key point for me, the a-ha moment, was when he described how technology shifted the time and space of communication. There were were, only able to send message as fast as trains, then the telegraph came along and suddenly a message could move at the speed of electricity.  Communication from Maine to Texas went from taking days to taking minutes. This began our acceleration into technology that follows us up to today. 

The second part of the book looks at television and how show business - that is, the business of entertaining ourselves to the point of distraction -- has shaped out discourse and attention spans. The problem, as Postman is careful to point out, isn't that TV is all bad, it's that we've let it reshape our ability to think and converse to our detriment under the guise of entertainment. Following his argument it isn't difficult to see the natural extension of this move into blogging, text messaging, tweeting, and passing along videos via social networks. Indeed, what we define as "social" today would confound previous generations. What we consider news wouldn't be worthy of print in the past. The very notion of what we call discussions have been reshaped to replace discourse with opinions spoken at one another. We share words and videos with each other and think nothing of how little information they convey, happy instead that we have merely linked something we hope others find amusing, entertaining, diverting. We have, at last, found Huxley's Soma.  

Postman died before this edition came out, and there has been no attempt (or need really) to update his text.  There is an an introduction by his son to help put things into context, and a short preliminary chapter to explain some of the references from 1985, but little else has been changed. In the introduction Postman's son relates how his father would assign his college students to not use any technology at all for a 24 hour period and then write about their experience.  Some hated the experiment while others found it profoundly illuminating. I think this book could be equally profound for teens interested in seeing beyond the surface of media and into the heart of our post-1984 brave new world.

Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
by Neil Postman 
Penguin  1985


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I wonder what "no technology at all" meant. I would find it tough to put together a meal without my refrigerator and stove--and since technology is now used to bring every piece of food in my house to the table (except what we pick ourselves from our garden), the pickings would be slim indeed. And I don't need a car, but I do use a commuter train.

Or did Postman just focus on communication technology--no phone, TV, or computer for one day?

david elzey said...

total sloppiness on my part, what was asked was that students refrain from "electronic media" and not technology which is certainly not a synonym.

cell phones, computers, tv, radio... anything that used electricity to convey media. makes a huge difference, and is more sense to the questions at hand.