Amusing Ourselves to Death

By rights Neil Postman’s 1985 tract on television’s perniciousness should be a relic or at least a curiosity but despite being written amid the Reagan administration parts of Amusing Ourselves to Death seem as relevant as ever while others less so. Evoking Orwell, Huxley and McLuhan Postman casts his gaze over television and by extension mass media’s reach.

That said, when he talks of the primacy of image above text we must pause and remember the disproportionate time we spend reading screens rather than just watching them.

Echoing McLuhan’s medium is the message Postman makes a case that the mode of communication invariably shapes what is said. He extends this to forms of discourse since:

all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.

To illustrate this he uses smoke signals which as a mode of communication is fairly limited in what can be conveyed. We can’t philosophise via smoke signals since it’s not a form that lends itself to verbosity and abstraction.

Similarly television, which has entertainment and image as its MO defines its own form of discourse:

You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

As a consequence discourse is moulded by the constraints and the demands of the medium.

You are not a database

This isn’t far from Jaron Lanier’s notion of personal reductionism in You are not a Gadget  – how our representation of ourselves and communication with others is increasingly mediated by databases (like Facebook). We’re used to bureaucracy when we fill out a form for tax return – it forms a bare approximation of who we are for this particular purpose but it can’t be mistaken for the whole picture. Social media profiles ask us to:

fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence. But in this case digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends….Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information under-represents reality.

The News

We can trace the start of mass media, as is often done, to the emergence of the telegraph. Information was more easily distributed and much of that information held little of immediate consequence to the majority of people, thus:

content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualised information over vast spaces at incredible speed.

The news is entirely a product of the mode of distribution and where, before in daily life, most people attended to the things and events that mattered and had real impact on their daily lives; the news, while not of immediate consequence to most, was considered something that should be of concern.

Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

The implications of this detached discourse introduced:

 on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.

It’s this incoherence that Postman refers to when he talks about this about Now…this. That moment in the news when we recalibrate our response as news shifts between serious and fluffier news items. It’s even more evident now in the pace with which we move between news stories online shifting from the tragic to the frivolous and back again.

we are by now so thoroughly adjusted to the “Now . . . this” world of news—a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events—that all assumptions of coherence have vanished.

Worryingly Postman read the implications  of this shifting in context as insidious and worst of all sinister:

Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticised by technological diversions.

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