Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the
Age of Show Business
I have wanted to read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death for quite a while. I feel as though I've had it On Reserve for years. I just never quite got around to it, though.

Imagine my surprise and delight when it popped up on my required reading list for one of my first grad school courses. It seemed like fate. Yet another small sign that I'm on the right path.

Postman's reflections on public discourse are now nearly 30 years old. Originally published in 1985, the book talks about how human communication and the sharing of information has changed since the invention of the telegraph. 

Ok, ok. I know that does not sound like a thriller. And, maybe in 1985, it wasn't. Fast forward nearly three decades, though, and Postman looks almost like a prophet.

His main thesis is that the increasingly fast and increasingly widespread sharing of information has led to a world where entertainment, rather than hard news, is the focus. In Postman's words: "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 result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death."

The first half of the book talks about the history of public discourse itself. Postman give a brief history of the "Age of Typography" and its importance in early American culture. He then introduces telegraphic and photography technologies and begins to examine their affect on the transfer of information. The second half of the book dives into the ramifications of this change in arenas such as education, religion, and politics. 

When reading the first half, I found myself nodding along with Postman. So many of his ideas and observations resonated with me. Upon reaching his examination of the "Age of Television," however, I balked a bit. 

Postman leans toward vilification of newer technologies. While he observes that every new technology both gives and takes away from our culture, I think he focuses too much on the "take" of visual mediums. I understand the purpose of his book is not to celebrate the achievements of this new age, but rather to raise caution. Still, he could have been a bit more balanced. 

To spare you more lengthy paragraphs (trust me, I could talk about this book for a long time!), I made a bulleted list of some of the high points. 
  • Postman dedicates a significant amount of time to the George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's predictions for the future world. As Postman puts it, "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one." There's no question that, at least to this point in history, Huxley hit much closer to the mark than Orwell. 
  • Our world no longer takes time to reflect. Instead, we rush from one bit of information to the next, unsure how to process each one.
  • Regarding the installation of a sub-Atlantic telegraph line, Henry David Thoreau once remarked that the first news would likely be that Princess Adelaide had whooping cough. This quote really struck me. You all know what a fan I am of British royalty. I know none of it is really news, but I still can't get enough. Sidebar: I am loving every second of the Royal Tour. It's like my Christmas. New Kate pictures every single morning!
  • Interestingly, Postman had zero complaints about "junk" television. In fact, he writes, "The best things on television are its junk, and non one and nothing is seriously threatened by it." This is one of those things with which I simply could not come to terms. It did make me wonder - what would Postman think of shows like The West Wing or even Scandal? Would he brand them as junk? Or dangerous mixes of "news" and entertainment?
  • One of my favorite quotes: "The telegraph may have made the country into 'one neighborhood,' but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other." This quote might as well be about the Internet.
  • And this one, too: "[Now] everyone is entitled to an opinion...It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions...."
  • Shockingly for an author so nearly prophetic, Postman does remark that he finds the computer to be "a vastly overrated technology." Definitely wrong there, Neil!

And, that's the last point I really want to flesh out. What would Postman think of this modern digital world? It's a question my classmates and I kept touching on in our discussions. At least, it was, until one of them found this great interview with Postman where he shares his thoughts on cyberspace.

Extremely interesting, isn't it?

If you read this far, kudos to you. I know this was a long post, but I really cannot begin to express all my thoughts on this book. I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy if you have never read it before. You won't be sorry. You may not agree with all of Postman's points either, but he has a lot of extremely valuable insights and observations. If nothing else, he will make you think about the constant barrage of media content we consume. 

Pages: 208
Date Completed: April 1, 2014

Have you read Amusing Ourselves to Death? Even if you haven't, what do you think about this issue? Does the digital world offer more good than bad? Or is the constant flow of information in our modern world bad for us?

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