BOOK REVIEW: In which Shannon embarks on a quest to summarize the core concepts of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and explores how public discourse has disintegrated in the age of show business.

(Posted by Shannon Lise on September 24th, 2012)

There are some books which everyone ought to read and few people do. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of them. His analysis of the devastating effects of the entertainment age on the quality of public discourse offers uncommonly keen insights into the way thought and culture are shaped by technology, and the resulting trivialization of every aspect of society.

In an effort to make the essential concepts of this analysis accessible to people who quite understandably lack the time or the motivation to read the entire book, I have taken the liberty of condensing the main ideas of Postman’s book into a very brief summary, which I hope will at least be thought-provoking.

Of course, no abridgement can conceivably do justice to the original, especially an original of such rare caliber as this, and I naturally do this with some reluctance, part of which stems from the realization that I am not able to retain either the author’s original eloquence or the wealth of examples with which he demonstrates the legitimacy of his claims. But when you recommend books to people as often as I do, you realize that most of the time even the most sincere and glowing recommendations seldom arouse an interest strong enough to lead someone to read an entire book, and a synopsis of some kind is much more palatable.

All culture is a conversation. The transmission of ideas permeates every aspect of society, whether it is politics, religion, education or entertainment. What most people do not realize is that the form which public discourse takes is what regulates the content of that discourse. To some degree, the form actually dictates the content. The medium used to convey ideas provides a unique mode of communication and a unique orientation for thought and expression, and is highly influential in determining what kinds of ideas prevail. Technological developments inevitably alter the way ideas are communicated.

To illustrate how technology influences how people think, take the invention of the clock, which created a moment-to-moment metaphor in our minds, making us think of time as a series of independent, mathematically measurable sequences, dissociated from human events. The microscope, by revealing hitherto invisible biological structures, suggested the purely psychological possibility of a similar structuralizing of the mind. Enhanced medical technology improved health and simultaneously introduced the notion that the malfunctions of nature and the ravages of time are not final, that both the body and mind are artificially improvable.

For a given culture, truth is defined by and derived from the media of communication through which information is conveyed. When we understand media as epistemology, we see that a major medium shift changes the structure of discourse, encouraging certain uses of the intellect, favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and demanding certain kinds of content. Some mediums are more exclusive than others. Smoke signals, hieroglyphics and the spoken word do not have the ability to say the same kinds of things that a written alphabet does. The written word freezes speech and enables criticism and an entirely new conception of knowledge.

Of course, all medium shifts necessarily involve tradeoffs. When print-based epistemology replaces oral-based epistemology, things like modern science, modern prose, and individualism are made possible, but things like poetry, religious sensibility, and sense of community lose their significance. They continue to exist, but their value is seriously undermined and they become a residual epistemology.

The Age of Reason in America and Europe was also the Age of Exposition. America was founded as a typographic nation. One could almost say that it was founded on the printing press, which shaped the political ideas and social life of the country. Of course, today we have more printed material than early America ever did, but we also have other forms of communication which were lacking then: radio, telephone, television, photography, etc., which is why in early America the printed word wielded a monopoly that it does not wield today.

In a print-dominated culture, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, systematic arrangement of facts and ideas, and the focus is on serious, logically ordered content and semantic meaning. The typographic mind is primarily rational. Engaging the written word and following a line of thought requires intellectual alertness, a strong attention span, and considerable powers of classifying, inference-making, and reasoning, as well as the ability to detect falsehoods, over-generalizations, contradictions and other abuses of logic. The written word is propositional and sequential and fosters an analytic management of knowledge.       

From colonial days onward, America boasted the highest literacy rates in the world. Literacy was not confined to the aristocracy. Not only books, but newspapers and pamphlets were widely popular, and the oratory of the nation, which was stately and impersonal, reflected its typographic nature. Sermons, lectures and political addresses were generally written speeches recited to an attentive and patient audience who had the ability to orally absorb complex arguments made by means of intricate, lengthy sentences. Oratorical charisma was designed to be easily transferable to the printed page. Because reading was not an elitist activity, and because the masses of the common people had access to the printed word and were capable of engaging in rational discussion, the emergence of a national public conversation was made possible.

The Age of Exposition is over. Today, our culture has abandoned typography for television, and simultaneously entered the Age of Show Business. We must realize that every technology has an inherent bias, and no technology is simply an extension of a previous technology. Television is not a new and improved version of the printing press; it is a totally different medium with a totally different message. To say that television is entertaining is an obvious and hardly threatening observation. But television is not merely entertaining. Television has made entertainment the natural format for the representation of all experience. Television doesn’t simply present entertaining subject matter; it presents all subject matter as entertaining. The distinction is subtle but essential. Entertainment has become the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. It gives us the impression that nothing is to be taken seriously and it produces a fragmented cultural conversation.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, television is an image-based medium. It uses pictures, not words. Employing exquisite photography, accompanied with suitable music, it is aimed largely at emotional gratification and requires minimal skills to comprehend. With clips that average less than 3.5 seconds, the mind is never forced to concentrate or focus for long periods of time, but instead is trained to be passive and inattentive. Television inevitably implies a strict time constraint, and all material must be seriously abridged and summarized. Thus, television focuses only on the highlights, and there is no room for verification or extensive explanation. Details are overlooked. Doubt or uncertainty of any kind is impermissible. There is no time to pursue a particular line of thought, and no time for reflection. Sustained, complex discussion is simply not suited for television, which must compress the content of ideas in order to fit the requirements of visual interest. The show has to keep moving. It is all about performance. A televised ‘discussion’ is comprised chiefly of witty, one-line comebacks that give impressions, but have no depth. Television, by its very nature, cannot accommodate depth because it doesn’t have space for it. It orchestrates the transmission and exchange of images, not of ideas.

There is a vast difference between symbols that demand conceptualization and reflection and symbols that evoke feeling. Language is cognitive, appealing to the mind; images are affective, appealing to the emotions. Propositions are true or false. Pictures are not. You can like or dislike a commercial, but you cannot disagree with it, because it is not based on a propositional truth claim. Advertising is not a statement about the value of the product, but a pseudo-therapeutic drama focusing on the value of the consumer. Businesses focus on market research, not product research. Commercials do not convince, they entertain. Our thought processes are controlled by media that is image-centered rather than word-centered. These forms have no concrete message and do not say anything definite. Rather, they work by powerful implication to impose their special interpretation of reality on our minds. The philosophy television commercials expect us to accommodate can be summed up in the belief that all problems are solvable, and that they are solvable instantly, through the intervention of technology and technique.

Television is different from film, music and radio because it is the only technology that encompasses all forms of discourse, from sports and weather to scientific advances and government policy. The demands of good showmanship trump the demands of any particular discipline. Television dictates how the world is to be staged, and the metaphor persists even off screen, controlling the way that politics, religion, business, education and other essential social matters are conducted.

The shift in technology started with the world of news and reporting. Significant developments in this area began even before the advent of television, with the invention of the telegraph. Born out of the 19th century ambition to conquer space and make the world small by disassociating communication from transportation, the telegraph created a continental information grid that destroyed the prevailing definition of public discourse and introduced context-free information, the value of which was no longer based on its usefulness, but on its novelty, interest, or amusement, transforming news into a commodity. The new definition of ‘newsworthy’ that evolved from this alteration embraces irrelevance and amplifies impotence. The majority of the information the average person hears on the news is divorced from any possibility of meaningful action on the viewer’s part. Today, ‘watching the news’ is the act of listening to an anchor rattle off a series of disconnected and largely useless facts and events concerning people and places that mean nothing to the listener. News has become a show, revolving around all the essentials of a show – good actors, appropriate music, and sensational stories. It has turned into entertainment.

We see the political effects of this same phenomenon in the reduction of political campaigns to advertising that focuses not on a candidate’s carefully articulated sociological perspective on the world, supported by historical background, economic facts, and coherent arguments, but rather on an artificial projection of that candidate as a likeable, experienced, virtuous (and preferably good-looking) man or woman, who has easy, simple solutions to every problem. Politicians are no longer expected to be statesmen; they are expected to be celebrities, and they are assimilated into the general culture as such. This commercialized approach robs political discourse of authentic ideological content.

The trivialization of religion is perhaps even more blatant. When religion is translated from its traditional context into an entirely different medium, it is no longer the same thing. Television strips religion of everything that makes it a profound, historic, sacred activity; tradition, ritual, dogma, theology – it is all lost. A television show is not a frame for sacred events. There is no religious aura, no slice of enchanted space-time removed from the ordinary and profane world around us and transformed into an otherworldly reality. When religion is turned into televangelism and presented as entertainment, it is impossible for it to retain its essential focus and the door to idolatry is opened. Even if unwittingly, the preacher, with his indispensable charisma, inevitably takes center stage. Religion becomes a show. Furthermore, because people have no obligation to watch any particular television show, and will only watch a show if they want to, televised religion must offer people something they want. It must be something fun and emotionally satisfying. Thus, there is no room for complexity or stringent demands. But true religion has never offered people what they want; only what they need.

There are many more examples that could be made, but hopefully the ones included here are enough to convey an idea of the impact that a technology shift like the one our society has experienced, along with the resulting evolution of communication mediums, can have on a culture, as well as the potentially disastrous effects.

There is no reason to believe that medium shifts necessarily result in equilibrium. Some media are epistemologically superior to others, and typography is superior to television, for clear reasons. Of course, the shortcomings of television as a medium of communication do not lie in aesthetic considerations. There is no objection to the trivialities of television, as long as they are recognized as trivialities. It is when television becomes a medium for ideas which are allegedly ‘significant’, that it becomes dangerous. When television becomes the central agent of public discourse, the seriousness and clarity of that discourse is threatened and is in danger of degenerating into silliness and absurdity. When that happens, the culture loses its coherence and creates a generation of people who are so addicted to entertainment and so busy amusing themselves, that they are all but incapable of rational thought. And people who are incapable of rational thought are incredibly easy to control.



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