Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in 1985, but it reads like prophecy today. On the first page, just a few paragraphs in, is the following passage:
What George Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 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 … 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 distraction.”
This 30-year-old book, written by a relatively unknown media critic who died in 2003, captures our cultural moment with terrifying precision.
“We’re a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology,” Postman wrote, “are now given form by TV, not by the printed word.” All of reality is a show, in other words, and has to be seen and experienced as such. This is especially true of politics, which, in the age of TV, is almost entirely about optics and entertainment.
The questions Postman raises in Amusing Ourselves to Death are jarring. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber addresses some of them in a superb essay about the social and political costs we’ve paid for prizing entertainment above everything else. Our entire culture, she notes, is built on cosmetics and performance, as the internal logic of television demands.
Garber’s piece sums up Postman’s thesis quite well, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into the media theory behind it. How, exactly, has television transformed American life, and how has the shift from a print-based culture to an image-based culture changed the nature of our minds?
I reached out to Lance Strate, a professor of communications at Fordham University and perhaps the leading media ecologist in the country.
The author of Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World, Strate has written extensively about Postman’s legacy, and about the cultural impact of television. He argues that our desire for entertainment has become “positively toxic” and in this new world defined by TV, the power of the image has overwhelmed our capacity to think and reason carefully.
In this interview, I ask Strate what Postman meant when he wrote that our culture had “descended into a vast triviality.” I also ask him if TV has trivialized our politics and made us all dumber as a result.
What did Postman mean by the phrase “amusing ourselves to death”?
He meant that we’re having a very good time, surrounded in every moment by distractions and entertainment, and that while that could normally be considered a good thing, something we’d like to have in our lives, we were starting to overdose on it. We had reached the point where the impulse for entertainment had become positively toxic.
What, exactly, was Postman’s argument? Why was the shift from a text-based culture to an image-based culture so consequential?
His argument rested on two main issues. One is image culture. Television, being image-based, is not conducive to rationality or really any kind of logical discourse. It’s good for evoking emotional responses but not for deep thought and reflection.
One of the reasons people thought that digital media and computers were different was that so much of it was actually text-based. But what we see is that as the technology has evolved and progressed more and more, we have the graphical user interface, we have the use of icons, emojis, and of course a tremendous amount of video that now dominates the web. So all of that really indicates that contemporary technologies have amplified the image orientation that was present with television.
The other part of it was the immediacy. All forms of electronic communication move very quickly. We have instantaneous communication which gives us a kind of telegraphic discourse. And Twitter is just the latest form of this telegraphic discourse.
To the extent that we use language, we use it in this very abbreviated way, and that again is not conducive to logical or extended discourse. It’s very good for slogans and jokes, and for trivial matters. But it feeds this tendency to turn things over quickly. We don’t stay on a subject for very long. Like, say, the news cycle itself, we just shift mindlessly from one story or subject to another.
Ultimately, we’ve overwhelmed with a flood of information and imagery. There is no time for reflection, for careful thought, for serious study.
Like Marshall McLuhan, Postman is convinced that the surest way to see to the core of a culture is to look at its tools of conversation. Why is this the defining feature of a culture?
What is a culture except for its conversation or its use of language? I mean, without that we’re kind of on the level of primates, really. What sets us apart from any other species is our use of language and symbols. And what is it that sets us apart from the kind of tribal cultures that were the only form of culture for something on the order of 100,000 years or more? As compared to the civilizations that only started to pop up somewhere between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago.
And that’s writing. That’s what we see in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, later in India and China, and of course in Greece and ancient Israel. You know we see the writing systems pop up that make all of those extraordinary cultures that possible, that’s the greatest revolution in human history, and as we progress forward what is it that put an end to the medieval world and brought us into the modern world? And, along the same lines, what is it that made the West preeminent because it wasn’t preeminent in the middle ages? And that was the printing press.
But the age of the printing press is over now. This is the point that Postman drives home. Our communication is now electronic and image-based, and that has had profound consequences.
That’s right. This was Marshall McLuhan’s point as well. We’ve had what he called an alphabetic civilization for more than 2 millennia. Well over 2 millennia. And we’ve come to the end of that road. It’s over. And it was over in his time, and he kind of sensed that. And that is the electronic media. And it’s really with television that it fully came into its own as a dominant medium.
And then digital media, the internet and all of that, that’s really further development, further progression. But all of the characteristics we associate with digital media were pretty much there in the 19th century with the telegraph and the telephone.
I’m trying to connect all of this to politics. The world that TV has built is precisely the world in which someone like Donald Trump can become president. When Postman writes, “We may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control,” it’s hard not to see how depressingly accurate he was. Is there any doubt politics is now about the artifice of display and not the content of ideas?
Well, you can go back to Reagan, who was elected a few years before Postman wrote this book, and the shocking event of an actor being elected president. In that case, you can see that there was, like, one foot in the old world and one in the new world. Reagan at least had some prior political experience, but his acting experience is what got him elected.
Postman was trying to make sense of the fact that if you look at what was going on at that time, the early ’80s, all the opinion polls were showing that Reagan had enormous popular appeal. And yet when people were asked about the issues, their views on the issues, they were diametrically opposed to them. And yet they voted for him anyway.
And this is the major disconnect between political issues and ideology. And really even if you look at the word ideology, you’ll see that it’s a system of ideas, which is what party platforms argue about. That made a lot of sense when print was the dominant medium, but it means nothing today.
Today, it’s all about the power of the image, of entertainment, of spectacle.
Let’s talk about the medium of TV and why it matters so much. For Postman, there was a clear relationship between a medium and the level of ideas it can sustain or communicate. TV, by virtue of what it is, seems to reduce everything to entertainment.
Well, I think we can qualify that. I don’t think you can say it can only be a form of entertainment. But in his time he wrote about PBS News Hour, which, compared to network news, was more in depth, spent more time on a story. And he actually said, the words were, “Their audience is minuscule.”
So let’s fast forward to today. And you can have CSPAN. And you can actually watch Congress at work. But how many people are watching?
Practically no one.
I think the word minuscule applies even more so in that instance. And why? If you think about television news, and really at the time that Postman wrote this, people were saying, “Well, we only have half an hour, and that’s with commercials, to do the news. If we had more time we could go in-depth.”
But now we’ve got three major cable news networks, and where’s the depth? It’s not there. Why? Because it doesn’t look good on television. It doesn’t play well, it’s not entertaining. Television exists to show us compelling images in a dramatic format — that’s it. And this is what we all come to expect the more we watch it.
CNN has all this time on their hands. What do they do? They show us the music of the ’60s. And Anthony Bourdain eating in exotic places. TLC used to be the learning channel and now it’s the Honey Boo Boo channel. You see a similar trajectory with almost every network — it’s always from more to less depth.
This is what we mean when we talk about the bias of the medium. And we mean bias not in the sense of prejudice, but bias as in tendency. The tendency for things to roll down a hill rather than up a hill. And downhill on TV is toward exciting images, dramatic performance, compelling personalities, and triviality.
Has TV made us dumb? Has it permanently trivialized our politics?
Well, it short-circuits our ability to think clearly and in depth. It’s a constant stream of distractions that interfere with any kind of rational response to the world. I’ve been thinking about this because Daniel Boorstin wrote a wonderful book called The Image that Amusing Ourselves to Death draws on along with Marshall McLuhan. And I’ve been thinking about this regarding Trump because Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-events.”
He coined this term to describe how Joseph McCarthy was incredibly skillful at manipulating the press. For example, how he would call a press conference in the morning to announce that he would hold a press conference in the afternoon with new revelations about communists and government. And then whether he actually did call the press conference in the afternoon or not didn’t matter. The aim was to dominate the newspapers, which, at that time, came out in multiple editions a day.
This was an early example of how the image-based media transformed our politics, and in almost universally unproductive ways.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is about how TV has altered our epistemology, how we know things. We respond to images, not words, and that leaves us more open to manipulation.
Epistemology is how we know the world, how we learn about aspects of our environment. In large part, what we take in from our environment is mediated. I’ve never been Russia. I’ve never met Putin. I have to rely on information I get through the media that is available to me. But their biases also color the way I understand the world.
In an earlier age, someone like Putin would just be a name I read. Now there’s a face and a voice and I make a judgment based on how that person looks and sounds. And this is true of nearly everything and everyone these days: We make judgments based on imagery, not the printed word.
I think this means we’re much more emotionally connected to the rest of the world. That can be good in times, but it also means that we’re much more open to being manipulated.
Can we draw a straight line between TV and post-factuality? Surely it’s no accident that facts have become less important as more and more of reality gets reduced to a TV show.
Facts are the magic matter of rational discourse. A fact is a statement, it’s language. People use the word in different ways, but it really takes a statement to make a fact. And in technical terms, a fact is something that you can check out.
So if I tell you it’s raining outside right now, then it’s something that you can check out and determine whether it’s true or false. And technically a statement of fact can be false. But the point is that you can see that it’s false, you can check it out.
Reagan was famous for false facts. Many of them turned out to be things he saw in movies. But they were statements that could be checked out. Where we’ve gone beyond that is the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore when people point out that statements are false, or that whole thing of alternate facts and post-truth. It’s like true and false really doesn’t matter. And it’s sort of interesting how they use the word “believe” now.
I hear people say, “Well, Trump believes this to be true.” That belief is the source of truth does signal a reversal of a literate, typographic epistemology in which you make a clearly defined statement that we can go and test in the world, and that’s the basis of science, as opposed to an older epistemology, like the oral tradition, where we believe to be true what we sing in our songs, what we’ve passed on from generations.
But now belief is about feeling, emotion — it’s about the person. It’s no longer whether you believe that the world is round or flat, which is a belief that can be checked out. It’s now: Do you believe in Trump? Or, do you believe in Hillary Clinton? Or, do you believe in whoever. But that’s a different kind of belief. It’s all about the person, and how we feel about the person is shaped by TV.
How do we course-correct? Because there is no going back. For better or worse, the written word will always be secondary. So is it a matter of media literacy or what?
Well, I think Postman held out great hope for education as a way of addressing these problems. Which also means really emphasizing the enlightenment tradition of rational discourse and just plain literacy and not giving in to the latest and trying to make a school compete with television or the internet. So that is certainly part of the solution.
I think we have to talk and to read. It may well be that the only way we ever get things done is locally, and through personal connections and trying to work that way. I just don’t see any top down solution to this. But I think that we can certainly try to improve things. If everyone did that or if enough people did that on a personal level, that’s one way that this could be countered.