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Book Review: Amusing Ourselves (and Our Intellects) to Death

By Allie Shafran • Jan 29th, 2014 • Category: Editorial

“What is oppression?” asks Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. We are an oppressed people, Postman asserts, but the worst part about it is that most of us don’t even know we’re oppressed. In an age where presidents are Hollywood celebrities, senatorial candidates appear on Saturday Night Live, and “television news casters spend more time with their hair dryers than with their scripts,” the masses are as deeply engorged in entertainment as they are in mindlessness. Characterizing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as prophetic, Postman argues that this indulgence in pleasure is true oppression. Our intellectual autonomy is not being limited by a 1984 Orwellian external big brother that we are accustomed to fearing, but rather, by a Huxley-ian internal electronic device that we are accustomed to loving. That which we love, Postman argues, is “ruining us.” This thoughtless entertainment that we’ve welcomed into our bedrooms, seemingly unaware of its crippling effects, has replaced our society’s cognitive analytic discourse with a discourse rooted in sensationalism and imagery, he argues. And the oppressive box of bemusing radiation has marked the shift from the cerebral “age of typography” to the visceral “age of television.”

“How did this happen?” one might ask, to which Postman would sagely reply, “The medium is the metaphor.” In an allusion to Marshal McLuhan’s famous notion that “the medium is the message,” Postman writes, “A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us.”

Two mediums in particular, Postman argues, are responsible for shaping our modern “ definition of reality” into an “age of show business”: the telegraph and the photograph. The telegraph introduced man to “decontextualized information” that was not bound by space or time, which resulted in “fragmented conversation” or talk of neither particularly relevant nor meaningful news. The photograph introduced man to the world of visual imagery, where “seeing, not reading, was believing.” Where “a picture was not only worth a thousand words”, but soon replaced them, for news was now internalized by a superficial glance rather than by in depth conversation.

Building off of the foundational shifts in public discourse created by these inventions, television has further disconnected man from substantive news. Television, Postman asserts, was created for entertainment and entertainment alone. Just like the telegraph was created for speed and speed alone and the photograph was created for images and images alone. The problem is not the invention of these mediums, or more over, entertainment, speed, and images in and of themselves. Rather, the problem arises when we use these mediums to convey something that they where not created to convey: analytical, intellectually probing information. For entertainment does not adapt to hard-hitting news. Instead, intellectually probing news adapts to entertainment, transforming televised news into nothing more than the sheer entertainment its medium was created to carry.

So, Postman writes, the problem is not “Junk Television.” “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health.” But,  ”60 Minutes, Eye Witness News, and Sesame Street are.” The former draw a clear distinction between what is fun and what is information, but the latter draw a fuzzy line. The latter claim that they are intellectually honest, when in reality, the very fact that they are on TV, a medium rooted in fast-paced images rather than thoughtfully developed ideas, proves otherwise. But the average American does not see this. And so the average American mindlessly looks at pictures, laughs at his television screen, and listens to a new sensational headline every 45 seconds, all the while thinking that he is being fed real news. While in reality, all he is doing is amusing himself, and his brain, to death.

Postman’s depiction of the 1980 “Age of Television” and the illusion that it creates between fact and fiction is eerily prophetic. In 2013 we live in an “age of technology” or an “age of social media.” While the titles of our cultures are different, the crimes that we are guilty of are the same.  Just like the 80’s television era blurred the line of fun and fact, we blur the line of subjectivity and objectivity. We look to a medium that was designed to find dates, and rate the attractiveness of college comrades to provide us information on the Bostom Bombing and Chemical Weapons in Syria. And even worse, we trust this information. As the Boston bomber Reedit incident shows, we have taken mediums created to convey the subjectivities of personal taste, attraction, and connection, and transformed them into sources of objective news updates and loose political facts. We have blurred the line between social media and news media, all the while patting ourselves on the back for staying consistently informed. Thus, at the end of the day we are consuming nothing more than the candy news perpetuated by the 80s televised society.

Furthermore, Postman’s attack on the image as a superficial mode of public discourse that perpetuates misinformation is an insightful reality that defines the social media world. The replacement of deep words with shallow images is not only happening in the newsroom, but in the fabric of our social interactions as well. When we are sitting by our laptops, gazing at our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Reedit pages, we are doing nothing more than gluing our eyes to image after image hour after hour.  How many times have you started talking to your friend when he/she beings to tell you about his/her activities from the night before? “Oh I already know” you dismissively retort. “I saw it on Facebook.” We’re living in a world where seeing our friends happenings on the Internet replaces hearing about them in a nuanced meaningful fashion. Where we don’t bother asking our old high school friend what she is up to after all of these years, when you randomly bump into her on the street, for “I already know”, you think to yourself. “She just came back from studying abroad in India and last night she was at a college Halloween party where she dressed up as a mouse. “I know. I saw it on Facebook.”  The depths of our shared human experience that is explored through dialogue, is slowly being replaced by the superficial connections that pictures grant us. And so not only our news, but also our daily interactions, have become swallowed by Postman’s image centered “age of show business.”

Postman’s insight into the shape of public discourse is not confined to a coffin buried in the underground of the 20th century. Rather, it is alive, breathing and growing into the tenants of social media and social relationships in the 21st century.  However, one cannot ignore the idealistic nature of the utopian compartmentalized world that Postman argues for. A world where we draw clear distinctions between what is news and what is entertainment, between what is cliché and what is concrete. But in a world where  “Stevie Wonder meets Secretary General” and “Katy Perry’s sing roar to improvised African girls!” are videos featured on the UN.org homepage, is it really possible? And would a society largely made up of Huxly-ian entertainment seekers, content with laughing at their television sets, computer screens, and Facebook profiles, even want it to be? While Postman fails to address this problem, he offers keen insight into how our flashy, quick and dirty society came into being, and how that has transformed our ability to perceive what is real and what is merely a figment of our TV screens.

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