Are we at risk of amusing ourselves to death?

Neil Postman, professor, media theorist, and author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, presents a compelling narrative outlining the regression of society due to the progressing shift from the written word to mass media. Initially, Postman juxtaposes two literary pieces, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s futuristic Brave New World. He compares Orwell’s view, in which government will slowly oppress society and deprive them of liberty, to Huxley’s, which suggests that we will create our own demise through over saturation in trivial matters and irrelevant information. As Postman summarizes, “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” Postman wrote this piece in 1984, and throughout he argues that Huxley was in fact correct over Orwell in his predictions for the future of society. Postman’s ideas are further evidenced today as an accurate prediction 20 years later.

The Huxleyan warning is that culture, in essence, will become burlesque. Books will be outlawed, and independent thinking will be voluntarily eliminated. Under Huxley’s interpretation, there will be no need for government to ban books, as the public will have no interest in reading. Societal focus will have shifted to self medication through media and entertainment. Culture at large will be consumed with trivial matters (taking 10 seconds to flip through the channels during any given hour today will assert the accuracy of this prediction) portrayed as important information. Serious or notable discourse will become virtually non-existent, and our culture will evolve into a joke. In my opinion, no one can compellingly counter the fact that American society has allowed television and digital media virtually complete sovereignty over all institutions, be they political, social or educational. The perilous result of this is that most see no issue with acceptance of this line of thinking, which is precisely what Huxley predicted, and Postman reiterated just 20 years ago.

Americans, comparatively speaking, tend to be the least informed, but undoubtedly the most entertained.  News and politics lack quality as they are a form of entertainment from the medium of television.  Although being informed is arbitrary, many would claim they are well educated through the news media, when in actuality they are merely ‘in the know’ on nothing more than celebrity gossip or the latest murder trial. Dismally, an alarming number of American’s have trouble answering rudimentary questions about their country and political system.  Postman argues that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social quality.

I realize that some who read this may write these conclusions off as extremist and fanatical, which is understandable. However, I don’t think Huxley or Postman, nor myself for that matter, are advocating that media at large should be exchanged for purely text based forms of entertainment. This would be an irrational, unrealistic, and a virtually unattainable venture. Postman, however, does emphasize the need for consumers of mass media to understand the dangers involved in heavy reliance upon these sources for specific types of information. Television is best suited as a display of purely immaterial entertainment, but most dangerous when serving as a medium to deliver politics, science, education, etc.

I highly recommend this read for everyone; it influences ones line of thinking in a positive way, and encourages reconsideration of lifestyle decisions. I chose to review this book as my initial article, since the content has high relevance to what we as a group of individuals are doing with our free time; this blog! We are placing emphasis on the written word, and our initiative in this venture supports exactly what these books suggest, which self directed and continual learning.

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4 comments

  1. I think blame is being misdirected. (I haven’t read the book, but I did read the Wikipedia Summary, so I’m practically an expert, right?) I understand the reasoning of “form excludes content” and that TV can only sustain certain degrees of thought. But, television is still just a medium, and the control lies with people. It’s kind of like the “do guns kill people, or do people kill people?” argument. The people in control of the content being broadcasted through TV are more concerned with popularity and ratings and that affects the content they produce. Have you seen the documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”? It looks into the world of advertisement and how it affects our lives. Part of the movie touches on how, writers lose artistic freedom because advertisement control is so powerful. Their original thoughts are censored to fit into the mold created by people with the money, and therefore the control. Most movies that are “controversial” or merely don’t fit the ideology of the big companies that run Hollywood, have significantly less viewers, not solely because people only want trivial stories, but because they can’t get the funding or support to show their movie to widespread audiences.

    Plus, one could argue that the trivial content also infects books. If you walk through the “young adult” section of Barnes and Nobles, there are more and more books written in internet slang. We could very well still be reading “books” in the future, but maybe the future is hardcover editions of “Gossip Magazine” or “Vogue” lining the walls of libraries.

    I would like to believe that our future isn’t destined to be so dreary, mainly because of works like 1984 and Brave New World. I think these scenarios are a bit extreme, but necessary, otherwise they wouldn’t cause people to reevaluate our current society, because this is an issue. I once heard someone important say, that some other important person said, “when the camera was invented, people thought it would be the death of art, that people would stop painting and drawing. A camera provides realistic images; why would anyone want a painting?” So, is photography any less an art form than oil paintings? I think TV has the capability to “serve as a medium to deliver politics, science, education etc.” but only if the people who create the content are driven by their own passion for the topics and not purely for money, publicity, or ratings. So I think there’s potential.

    This was a very interesting perspective. I think there are pros and cons to everything, so I’m not completely advocating TV (or the media) as the best thing since sliced bread. It advances society and cripples society in different aspects.

    And, I wouldn’t dismiss Orwell’s prediction of the future. It may not be our reality, but it certainly is for North Korea.

  2. i partially agree with jen, yes TV is a medium of entertainment,but it lies with the end user on how to balance entertainment , in leisure, and work or self-improvement. Also does leisure aid self-promotion, i.e. growth of the mind?

    Yes there are horrible things on TV and in books. In response to what will we be reading in the future if you adult fiction has internet slang in it– I say , personally i don’t care for any thing written after 1940.

    Television is an interesting medium for the masses, it hold the power to persuade and detract–Steven Colbert hawking the G.O.P with a hilarious leaning or NFL competing with the Pres. addressing a Joint meeting of Congress.

    I think we will have to coup with the media due to the prediction that it will become MORE prevalent over time not LESS. Imagine a generation who didnt know what it was like not to have a phone by the age of 12 enabling you to contact all your friend and stream Youtube! It comes down to personal preference and self control, I realize the no one will be able to completely rid themselves of social media and product advertisements, but it is possible to NOT watch tv.

    I don’t own a TV, But i have an iphone…so i cant still stream movies, facebook, and youtbe,etc….to make the point, TV is not the end all to this phenomenon of the onslaught of media…if anything there will be more modes of contact—links—and stimulation for the mind. Whether that information is seen as positive for the intellect of degrading it will be ubiquitous and growing in clout.

  3. Let’s think back to, oh let’s say, 200 years ago. Most people performed hard, physical labor in order to put food onto the table, technological advances mostly revolved around militaristic weaponry, and news traveled at a snail’s pace, if it even ever reached you. People’s concerns lie elsewhere during this time. Do we have enough children to work the fields next harvest? Will we have enough surplus harvest to feed our children? Because of the technological advances of the time (or some may say, the lack thereof), the time and resources to consume ourselves in mass media was impossible.

    Today, as stated in previous comments, we have the ability to access nearly every outlet of media and entertainment in less than 5 seconds. I can travel the 3 miles to my workplace, talk to friends over 500 miles away, and read about civil wars in Africa before 9am. The comedian, Louis C.K., does a bit called “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk. He talks of being on a plane where the wireless internet breaks and how the passenger sitting next to him gets visibly upset. “How quickly the world owes you something that you didn’t even know existed 10 seconds ago” he says. He then goes on to say, “You realize you are sitting in a chair… in the sky, right?”

    Life has become incredibly easy for humans (and increasingly hard for ecosystems, but that’s another comment). We face virtually no challenges and have to fill massive voids in our minds. Would you rather cut down trees, strip and cut the wood into lumber and nails, and construct a backyard fence or watch someone do it on HGTV in the cool 72 degrees of your brick home? You can’t blame humans or media for consuming our souls. It is the life that has been created through technological advances, allowing our lives to be easier. Humans have been creating inventions that allow our lives to be easier for as long as we have existed as a species. You may not be able to compare the wheel to TV when discussing the greatest inventions of all time, but during events like September 11, 2011, it may be arguable.

    Are we more knowledgeable because of these advances in communication and media? Of course. Are we more intelligent than we were 200 years ago? I don’t think so. It’s all in what you do with the resources you are given, and right now, a lot of people don’t want or need to do a whole lot because they don’t have to.

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