Thursday, January 29, 2009

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Television
1985 Neil Postman
176 pages, plus index, bibliography, and notes.

I read a couple of books by Postman during the summer, and both were mind-broadening. Postman is particularly concerned about the technological impact on our culture: in Technopoly he puts forth the idea that culture has become completely subjugated to technology, and to television in particular. This book is particularly concerned with the impact of television on our culture. This is a particularly interesting book for me, because I was raised outside of television culture: the Christian sect that my parents belong to discourages its members from owning televisions, so television was alien to me. Even though I have a television (and enjoy watching it), I don't spend a lot of time watching it and am prone to forgetting to watch it for weeks on end. Thus my perspective is more of an outsider's.

Postman begins the book with a forward that expresses his view that Brave New World -- which, according to him, depicts a world where the truth has become irrelevant and human culture has become completely trivial -- may be coming true. He begins the book proper by writing that through the United States' history, various cities have represented its cultural identity: 18th century Boston symbolizing its intellectual livelihood, late 19th century New York symbolizing the United States' growth as a melting-pot, and early 20th century Chicago representing the United States' industrial might. He then speculate that perhaps Las Vegas symbolized America today: a nation obsessed with amusement. (Interestingly, fellow social critic James Kunstler said the same thing in his lecture at my university back in the fall.) I include this because I thought the comparison apt.

Postman's introductory chapters concern his central idea that technology always shapes culture and that particularly pervasive technologies contain within them programs for changing culture in big ways. This is an idea he's written on in other books under the theme "the medium is the message". The first chapters here are "Medium as Metaphor" and "Medium as Epistemology", where he expands on this idea. Then he applies this idea to an understanding of 18th and early 19th-century America ("Typographic America", ruled by print culture). Postman characterizes print culture and uses examples from this era to back those characterizations up. One memorable example was the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which crowds gathered for hours on end to listen to the two parties discuss their ideas in very (by our standards) formal ways. Postman then asks (and I paraphrase) "Can you imagine a modern audience standing for this?"

In "The Peek-A-Boo" world, Postman describes the impact of telegraphy and photography, which both give people information and impressions about situations far removed from them. This is where the triviality begins, in Postman's view: people are beginning to be barraged by information about people who they don't even know. He applies this to the modern world, addressing people who are hooked on political talk shows, and makes the powerful point that for most people, the political ideas being discussed are utterly irrelevant to their lives. After developing this idea for a bit more, he (in individual chapters) looks at television's treatment of religion, government, sports, art, and education. Education is particularly important for him (being an educator) and he's apparently written several books on the subject.

Postman is as ever engaging and provocative. The book is well-organized and well-developed, and I recommend it if you want your intellectual nose tweaked.

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