Amusing Ourselves to Death, 32 and Looking Not a Day Older

Every semester that sees me teaching freshman how to avoid comma splices, among other pressing matters, I assign one reading that continues to excite me: “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” by Neil Postman.  It’s a speech Postman delivered before a room of theologians as the 20th century was coming to an end.  There is concern at the start of his talk about the rush of technology that has begun to seem beyond what many thought possible only a few years prior.  I mean, yeah, cellular phones and computers were around in the 1980s, but who among us cared about that junk?  (Okay, a lot of people were interested in these gadgets.  My stepdad, for one.  He always had a computer in the house, even those primitive keyboard-and-screen-in-one clunkers from Radio Shack, though all I remember doing with it was running a program that filled the screen with whatever dirty word I found funny at the moment.) 


But in 1998, when Postman made his speech, the internet was a thing we were only beginning to allow into our everyday lives.  I recall my distrust—it seemed to me that the so-called information highway was more a way to get cheap ego validation and play with toys.  And I was right, of course, though I was neither the first nor the last to state as much.  But I was converted once I got an email account and realized that it would improve my life inasmuch as I no longer had to speak to people on the phone.  God bless email. 


Whatever trepidation I may have had about the fast moving tech the rest of the world was so excited about, Postman was less fearful and more critical in the even-headed manner that seems lost on my students.  They tend to see his speech as an attack on tech from an old man who died before Snapchat, so what did he know?  One student defended tech in her response essay by writing on the wonders of Tinder, but I digress. 


Postman was not a technophobe.  He merely understood that technology is, in his words, “a Faustian bargain.  Technology giveth and taketh away.”  Meaning that for every advantage that we gain with new technologies (speed, access to information, connection to people), we lose something (focus, decorum, connection to people).  This is not exactly unique to technology, as all that is added to our world exacts some sort of price, but it is a salient point that seems lost on the tech zealots who see every app as a means of “making the world a better place.” 


Suffice it to say that my students—being young and not really able to remember a time before smart phones or laptops—see this speech as an assault on their way of life.  I try to defend Postman because I happen to agree with his speech, but I am biased.  I’ve long thought his voice was among the most rational ones that see television and computers as being less than the miracles they are often thought to be.  At the very least, he saw them as more complex.  And while people have been bad mouthing TV for generations, few saw the problem from Postman’s point of view.


Which brings me to Amusing Ourselves to Death, the 1985 book that will forever be associated with Postman’s name.  Similar to Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” idea, Postman’s critique of “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” will forever be his biggest claim to fame.  And Rightfully so!  Amusing Ourselves to Death is a now a whopping 32 years old and showing few gray hairs and next to no liver spots.  Sure, some of the focus seems dated only due to the tech saturation that has caused us to spend more time in front of the computer than the television, though, of course, the two have begun merging into one.  Netflix, you seductive bastard.  Aside from a few details that date the text (references to “Dallas” and “Cheers”) nothing seems older than a day, provided one sees Postman’s discussion of television as applicable to the streaming services and YouTube.  Which I do. 


The most relevant chapters in Amusing Ourselves to Death have to do with the format of TV news and our political process, the former being predicated on short bits of information followed by equally short bits of information interrupted by commercials and scored to emotionally manipulative music, none of it delivered with any sort of real analysis or time for reflection.  When we receive info via the nightly newscast, we get mere drips from an iceberg.  The format is not meant to engage us critically or to illuminate the stories, just deliver them in an entertaining way.  The reason why is that, according to Postman, TV, like all technologies, has a philosophy that favors certain things over others.  And TV favors entertainment, even when it’s pretending to inform.  Who wants to think when watching the tube?  Now, if you ask me, the other issue here is the problem with capitalism: everything is a commodity, including information, thus the imperative is to make profit.  And the news, divorced from the music and the attractive smiling idiots on camera, is boring.  At least when compared to the rest of TV.  The newscast was once expected to lose the networks money.  The news was seen as a public service, not entertainment.  Oh, those must’ve been the days!


As for the second relevant chapter I mentioned, the one having to do with the political process in the age of show business, Mr. Postman’s words have never before seemed so germane.  What he reserves for Reagan (in one interview he noted the irony—and the lack of public awareness of this irony—of Reagan, a man who seemed to both say nothing and contradict himself at will, being labeled “the great communicator”) is more than applicable to the tweeter-in-chief currently residing in the White House.  But lest I digress into a Trump bash-a-thon, let me remember that the Postman’s criticisms—that political discourse is a sideshow when it is done on TV and, thus, politicians are rendered inarticulate and/or ineffectual—apply to every presidential candidate of my lifetime.  I was born when Nixon was president.  We all know of the debacle that was his debate against Kennedy, to which he blamed the make up man.  And he was right to do so, for, to paraphrase Postman, to be a politician in the era of TV is to be akin to a celebrity—you must look reasonably normal if not attractive.  No fat presidents since Taft.  God knows FDR would never have been elected were the pubic to have seen the ravages of his polio.  My grandmother, god love her, had a difficult time voting for Kerry over Bush because she didn’t relish the idea of looking at Kerry’s droopy face for the next four years. 


Postman’s point about the manner in which television has degraded public speech, information, political and religious discourse, and even education (he saw “Sesame Street” to be of more of a threat to our culture than “Dallas”) was spot fucking on.  And it remains so in the era of social media and memes.  Is there any more obnoxious means of making a point than a meme?  When I mention this to people—particularly those younger than 30—they roll their eyes and counter that memes are funny.  That’s all they’re meant to be.  And I agree— they can be quite amusing, but a large segment of the public is currently sharing (not to mention creating) memes that seek to make sociopolitical statements.  While they probably would, if pressed, use the same justification (“C’mon, get a sense of humor”) they are essentially proving the points Postman made over 30 years ago: we are gleefully reducing everything to entertainment.  And some things shouldn’t be entertaining.  They should be considered important or vital or necessary or lovely or fulfilling without garish dressing.   There’s nothing wrong with the Oscars or sit-coms or even memes, but when our politicians and spokespersons have to take to these mediums because the public will not engage in essential civic processes otherwise, there’s a big problem.  But hey, we’re all amused.  The decline will be chock full of yuks.