Book Reflection – Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman, copyright 1985

It’s a familiar idea that TV is junk for your brain. That’s not particularly new. Postman goes deeper and discusses how with TV as the dominant (not the only, but the dominant) mode of communication in our country/society, it shapes the way we think, to a detrimental degree.

He starts with an allusion to Orwell and Huxley. He says Orwell’s fear of a government controlling everything isn’t the reality, instead warning that Huxley was a lot closer – that people would only care about entertainment and give up on society. TV brings us Wall-E, not Stalin.

It’s an extreme view that I don’t think will fully happen, but like 1984, a useful archetype to have in mind. Also, since he wrote the book twenty-five years ago, the practicalities of the internet aren’t addressed at all.

A few salient points:

“The medium is the message” a Marshall McLuhan quote that Postman elaborates on. Books involve thinking in a long-term manner, keeping the early chapters in mind while being led through an extended logical argument. TV instead is visual and brief, where the television language is one of constant scene cuts to keep the viewer engaged and interested. These two examples encourage very different kinds of thinking and communicating. TV encourages reducing complicated ideas to sound bites. And discourse suffers.

In the 1800s, the inception of long-distance telecommunication with the telegraph changed news forever. Instead of knowing mostly about local matters, and learning about distant events after a period of time, now we know anything about anything from anywhere. Postman asks a very serious question – what is the usefulness of knowing all of this information? Are you going to do anything differently this afternoon when you hear about all sorts of disasters and conflicts around the world on the morning news? The answer usually is: not really. We have a glut of information about the world and few immediate tools that allow us to act on that knowledge.

The ramification of a glut of information, in Postman’s mind, is that news is entertainment. We hear 30-second tidbits of info without any time to react emotionally or reflect on them before we hear about the next tidbit.

Also, we’re not very deliberate about how we let new technology into society. The telegraph is invented and it quickly spreads because of its advantages. Society just doesn’t think about the changes that introduces and whether or not they are good. It’s commonly thought that new technology is always good, and the behavior change as a result is also probably good. Postman is afraid that the change in how we think due to TV is not good.

Postman doesn’t offer an easy remedy. His suggestion is basically education – we need to talk about our communication technologies and how they shape the ways in which we talk and discuss our world. He didn’t know about the internet at all when he wrote the book, but it’s worth thinking about how the internet shapes our brains as well.

Very thought-provoking book. Worth a read.

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