Amusing ourselves to death,
informing ourselves to life
The 25th anniversary of Neil Postman’s best-known work


article and illustration by Geoff Olson

Photography is going to marry Miss Wireless and heaven help everybody when they get married. Life will be very complicated. – Marcus Adams, Society photographer, in the Observer, 1925.

tv set with man's face filling screen

Criticizing television is a mug’s game. All you need is a working set and an electrical outlet and you can mutter away to your heart’s content. But no one ever took apart the television medium with as much insight and flair as the late media critic Neil Postman. This fall marks the 25th anniversary of his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a slim volume of acid prose and razor-sharp thinking.

“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice,” the New York University scholar wrote. “The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

On one hand, it seems there’s little practical benefit in criticizing commercial television for being what it is. You can’t criticize a great white shark for being a man-eater (as I learned during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel). But, on the other hand, you can’t go wrong knowing how and why we are manipulated daily by a conga line of talking heads. Amusing Ourselves to Death was, if nothing else, a great primer on intellectual self defence. But how well has it stood the test of time?

Drawing upon and extending the ideas of Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan, Postman argued that a given medium can only hold a certain level of ideas. Rational argument fares better in a print-based medium than in an image-based medium, he claimed. The culture of print, which presumes literacy and the time to read, is being undermined by the quick-edit culture of television, which appeals to sensation and emotion. By its very nature, the medium conflates information and entertainment and turns public discourse into a spectator sport, full of sound and fury and signifying ratings.

“Television screens saturated with commercials promote the utopian and childish idea that all problems have fast, simple, and technological solutions,” the author wrote. “You must banish from your mind the naive but commonplace notion that commercials are about products. They are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales.” Commercial television is about mythmaking, he insisted, and politicians campaigning on television are branded products, just like automobiles or dishwasher detergent.

I was fortunate enough to briefly meet with the author after he lectured in Vancouver in 2001. In his gravelly Brooklynese, he told me McLuhan once advised him he should analyze media dispassionately, without moralizing. Postman said he had a good response to his colleague’s advice: “Bullshit, Marshall.”

“I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist,” he argued in AOTD. This 1985 jeremiad against the tube encouraged a lot of readers, including artists and musicians, to look at the ‘Thing in the Living Room Corner’ in an entirely new way. The book inspired Roger Waters’ 1992 caustic concept album, Amused to Death, which Postman said “raised his prestige” among undergraduates.

AOTD opens with the author brilliantly contrasting and comparing Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, who offered opposing visions for the future. Writing of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Postman notes, “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

In AOTD, Postman focussed on the Huxleyan scenario and in the opening chapters he cited historical evidence for news consumers’ shrinking attention spans. The author argued that the high literacy rate of 18th century New England exemplified a “typographical culture” that surpassed today in literary appreciation and depth. “When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equalled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks and Michael Jackson,” Postman noted.

During one of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates, the audience sat listening for a total of seven hours, with only a break for dinner. Such focused public attention seemed unthinkable in 1985, and even more so in 2010 – if only because news consumers on both sides of the border have been stuffed to imbecility on the fast food model for information delivery. The big broadcasters want quick sound bites on their programming menu and this expectation put backwards pressure on politicians to sum up complex thoughts in a few seconds, Postman argued. This, in turn, encourages the public expectation of fast and simple from elected leaders.

Almost two decades ago, communication studies determined that candidate “sound bites” on network news programs had shrunk from more than 40 seconds during the 1960s to less than 10 seconds in the 1980s. A 2007 study found that from 1992 through 2004, “the length of the average sound bite in these newscasts continued its decline, falling another 15% or so, down to 7.7 seconds.”

“I have no objection to television junk. The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it,” Postman insisted. It’s when citizens mistook television for a serious medium that concerned him. They end up duped into believing they are being informed, something that television, by it nature, could not do properly – certainly not when news topics are given a minute or less on the evening news. (Full disclosure: this writer’s prime-time guilty pleasures include Destroyed in Seconds and 1001 Ways to Die.)

However, there were some things about today’s television that the sage of Brooklyn didn’t – and couldn’t – predict. In the past decade, 24-hour cable news outlets like Fox television cranked up 24-hour yammerfests, spewing right-wing talking points and waving bye-bye to the reality principle. Yet, over the same time period, dramatic television series like Deadwood, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Six Feet Under picked up the slack in truth-telling. These productions expertly dismantled American myths about cowboys, crime, drug use, the culture of advertising and the business of death.

The social criticism extended to television comedy with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, “fake news” shows that lampoon the very media they are embedded in, employing the kind of clever savagery once reserved for critics like Postman. Documentaries on public television, like the investigative journalism of PBS’ Frontline, CBC’s Passionate Eye series and the now-defunct Bill Moyers Journal negate Postman’s claim that television cannot by its nature offer an effective forum for serious topics.

I can imagine how Postman would have responded to the above. It’s the very excellence of today’s television entertainment and the Huxleyan upgrade of consumer technology to digital, high-definition delivery, wide-screen TVs and PVRs that keeps us glued to our couches, strangers to our neighbours and alienated from local community. As for any documentaries that air on publicly funded television, they are drowned in a “sea of irrelevance” with only a small fraction of the viewing public tuning in. Similarly, the ‘fake news shows,’ are marginalized onto the late-night schedule of cable television networks. The barbed quips bounce off the military-industrial-entertainment complex with barely a ding.

Postman insisted that commercial television degrades public discourse into show business and this thesis has held up over time. Consider the media spectacle during the Bush years when newscasters rubberstamped the fudged intelligence on Saddam’s supposed “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” War-as-entertainment had been beta-tested in the first Gulf War, but the second time around, the process was streamlined and digitized with glitzy graphics and CGI computer animations, conjuring up a fairy-tale world of brush-cut heroes and swarthy villains. Post-9/11, viewers have had the opportunity to believe, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, in “six impossible things before breakfast,” courtesy the news networks’ cheerleading for the war on terror.

Postman would have not have blinked when Ad Age awarded Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign “marketer of the year” award, edging out runners-up Apple and Television “junk” and “news” are two sides of the same commercial coin, minted in the foundries of corporate monopolies. And beginning in the nineties, junk and news fused into a non-stop circus of irrelevance, hosted by well-coifed anchorclowns. The signal moment came in 1994 when the 24-hour cable news shows broadcast, in real time, the low-speed police chase of a famous murder suspect in a white Ford Bronco. The OJ Simpson chase and subsequent trial became the template for two decades’ worth of celebrity meltdown sideshows, from Anna Nicole Smith to Tiger Woods.

As Postman would have expected, commercial news broadcasting has not improved over time in handling uncomfortable truths – especially those that might offend corporate sponsors. Mainstream media outlets do not question the axioms of the establishment culture. They are the establishment culture. You can’t criticize a mule for being sterile.

“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained but likely the least-informed people in the Western World,” the author grimly observed. In the years since the publication of AOTD, American television has ascended new peaks of quality, even while descending to depths worthy of BP oil rigs (insert reality television program of your choice here). Little wonder I’m encountering more and more people who tell me they have pulled the plug entirely. For a generation under 30, the tube is a boomer’s way of wasting time. Younger media consumers can waste their time more cheaply online and with far more interactive options. And that includes watching commercial-free TV programs, old and new, on the Internet.

Since Postman wrote his book, the centre of North American culture has shifted away from one-way broadcasting to interactive networking. But the sage of Brooklyn believed the democratic deficit that came bundled with television extended to other forms of consumer technology, an argument he detailed in his 1996 book Technopoly. Postman had no time for the Internet and proudly claimed he’d never been on it or even owned a computer for that matter. His only technical aid was a pencil, he repeated. Alas, the man’s personal preference for graphite placed him conceptually somewhere between cuneiform and the Book of Kells. His ivory tower perspective of anything after Marconi led to a refusal to contaminate himself with the tools he ostensibly criticized. It was a bit like Aristotle attempting a treatise on outboard motor repair.

When Postman addressed the atomizing effects of communication technology, however, he turned out to be prescient. American viewers now watch an estimated 200 billion hours of TV every year and, in the digital age, the scale of Huxleyan distraction has increased dramatically with the emergence of wireless technology and portable electronic devices. Throughout any major North American city, cafes, public transit and streets are full of people lost in their personal worlds of surfing, texting and musical solipsism. Back at home, there’s more of the same, with family members sequestered in separate rooms, consumed by social networking sites, video games and perhaps even online gambling and porn.

All this frantic digital activity has led to a global ‘Tower of Babel,’ a non-physical ziggurat of tweets, blogs and DIY videos, with terabytes of data added hourly. It has created a disembodied form of community, with no borders – a world in which the map is the territory.

“Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens,” the author prophesied in AOTD. The die-off of newspapers across the US in the past few years has done nothing to contradict the professor’s assertion. Postman surely would have called attention to recent research suggesting our Pavlovian responses to social networking alerts and other digital attention-getters have deformed our capacity for close, sustained reading of text, both online and off. (The effect on spelling has been noted by many commentators.)

At the same time, sales of some electronic books are overtaking the sales of their print-based editions and libraries are seeing an explosion of interest in e-texts. The nature of reading has been altered by the new technologies, but it hasn’t been extinguished. The gnomes of Silicon Valley are simply trying to find new ways to expand and exploit typographical culture, through devices like the Kindle and iPad.

“We are getting sillier by the minute,” Postman wrote in 1985, and, by my calculations, by now we should all be in greasepaint and wearing size 23 shoes, laughing at holographic remakes of The Three Stooges. We’re not, but it’s not as if we’re all following in the footsteps of Mr. Spock, either. In spite of all the alternative media to be found on the Internet and the vast explosion of intellectual resources online, the collaborative impulse of networked individuals has yet to be fully tapped.

But most ominously, the nation with the biggest global footprint of electronic media is also cursed with poor language skills. According to a study produced by the State Education Agency, more than one third of Washington, D.C. residents are functionally illiterate, unable to read much beyond past a newspaper headline. Other studies have estimated that 40 to 50 percent of US adults are functionally illiterate. Is this a measure of the state of US public education or the domination of image over text, as Postmanites might argue? Or is it part of a general civic decline, unavoidable for a nation that blows half its yearly federal budget on military bling?

There is a related possibility: the elite class has abandoned any pretence of supporting an informed, intelligent public at home, preferring to prosecute ruinous wars abroad for private profit. There is nothing to stop an Orwellian system from using Huxleyan means of control – anaesthetizing the population through high-tech distractions and mood-altering drugs – a point Postman himself conceded.

Not surprisingly, the neo-Luddite author entitled his last book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. He exited the 21st century as a brilliant, curmudgeonly moralist, a man who refused to believe that technology is as ambiguous in nature as the messy, complicated beings that create it.

The flip side of “amusing ourselves to death” is ‘informing ourselves to life.’ Will the new consumer technologies and high-definition, digital broadcasting converge into a monolith of mass distraction and individual manipulation worthy of Brave New World? Will we entertain ourselves right onto the mortician’s slab, our cold, dead fingers wrapped around iPhones and Crackberries? Or will our tools escape from the toolmakers’ control and offer activists the ongoing opportunity to speak truth to power and address a growing democratic deficit, and back-engineer face-to-face community?

From the way things are going, I suspect the future will turn out to be some kind of crazy-quilt combination of the above. Some of us will shake ourselves awake while others will descend deeper into the mass dream. As for the thousand-channel universe, parts of it will continue to improve in quality, while other parts worsen, as the digital age approaches some kind of “singularity.”

Since its creation in the late forties, the boob tube has yet to prove its mettle as our servant. But heaven help us if TV successfully mates with the Internet in the new millennium and the offspring becomes our master.

Common Ground Special Events presents Geoff Olson Live! September 15, Vancouver Public Library, 7:30pm
Tickets 604-733-2215