ThinkingAmusing ourselves to death – Part one

Amusing ourselves to death – Part one

This is the first of a two part final in a series on how technology “hijacks our minds” (to quote Google’s Tristan Harris). You can read the first post in the series here.

The last few posts have looked at:

I had a great response to the last post on “tuning the signal to noise ratio”. The idea of only reading older books – books that have stood the test of time – rather than the newspapers and today’s best-sellers – reminded one reader, Jeff Mason, of CS Lewis. Jeff wrote:

“C.S. Lewis once observed, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” The only palliative to the peculiar blindness of our own age, Lewis suggested elsewhere, ‘is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.’”

The “clean sea-breeze of the centuries” is a great image of the wisdom brought by old books. Anyway, on to this week: I want to reflect on Neil Postman’s incredibly prescient 1985 book “Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of show business” – which is at least the “cool sea-breeze” of the decades.

Amusing ourselves to death?

Postman’s thesis is simply stated. The ability for a society to conduct discourse about complex matters will be driven by the media (and underpinning technology) it uses. And some media (and underpinning technology) are better for the discussion of the complex and abstract ideas involved in governing a democracy than are others. Postman’s argument is a lot like McLuhan’s (“the medium is the message”), which he acknowledges, but it goes beyond it. A society dependent on a medium that is incapable of carrying nuanced thought will be the poorer for it. The America of the 1980s is such a society with its reliance on TV.

Here’s my (gross) simplification of Postman’s argument:

1 – The medium dictates the content

A medium (with its underpinning technology) will dictate the type of content that it can most naturally carry, and not carry. Postman gives the extreme example of “the primitive technology of smoke signals”. Although he admits to not know exactly what content was carried by smoke signals “I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument”. Why?

“Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.” (p7)

2 – For this reason American democracy grew in the “age of typography”

Postman then states that American democracy grew in what he calls the “age of typography”. He shows that the early European settlers were highly literate and had a culture that valued the book and written argument. This had a lot to do with their fleeing religious persecution as dissenting protestants. This culture of respecting the printed word remained with America through its early centuries and helped to foster a strong democracy. Postman’s claim seems to be that a democracy like America’s could not have been formed without the media of the printed book, newspaper and pamphlet. These media could both travel the long distances of a continent-wide democracy, but at the same time contain the nuanced arguments necessary to sustain such a democracy.

3 – Television as a medium is incapable of sustaining such a democratic discourse

Postman then shows how the medium of television is incapable of sustaining such complex discourse. He shows how the decline in discourse and public thought started with the telegraph and camera and then reached its peak with television.

The telegraph and the camera, and the other technologies that followed them in the early 20th Century, created a new way of seeing the world, a new way of knowing about the world – in short a new epistemology:

“Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.” (p77)

Postman claims that in television this world reaches its apotheosis. To Postman’s mind television is dangerous because it must always be entertaining. The fact that it is always immediate, fragmentary, and image based, means that it must always entertain. The entertainment requirement of television will always trump any other requirement, such as to inform, to reason, or to debate. In a “peek-a-boo world” it can be no other way.

As such, television as a medium is far less effective than the printed word in sustaining a democratic discourse in a society. This wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the fact that television has become the hegemonic medium of Postman’s times (his next point).

4 – Television is the dominant medium of the age

Postman would not be so worried about all this except for the fact that by the 1980s television was the dominant medium of the age:

“Television is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances. No one buys a record to find out the baseball scores or the weather or the latest murder. No one turns on radio anymore for soap operas or a presidential address (if a television set is at hand). But everyone goes to television for all these things and more, which is why television resonates so powerfully throughout our culture. Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.” (p 92, emphasis mine).

In other words, all of political discourse will be dumbed down to the entertainment values of television. Regardless of what medium that discourse occurs in.

5 – As a result, democracy is stuffed

As a result of all this – democracy does not look healthy. If the dominance of television forces all discourse into the metaphor of entertainment, then reasoned, sustained debate becomes much harder, if not impossible. Postman fears that it’s hard to sustain a democracy in that situation.

Was Postman right?

Looking back over the decades since 1985, it’s hard not to think that Postman was right. Even when he was writing, a former movie actor was already president. But in the years that followed we have had:

  • Karl Rove (George W Bush’s political operative) talk disparagingly of the “reality based community“. That is, people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.”
  • Sarah Palin, as the 2008 VP candidate, stumble on Katie Couric’s question “What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read, before you were tapped for this, to stay informed and to understand the world”. This is no “gotcha” question. It would have been a reasonable question to have asked of any politician up until a few decades ago. But Palin stumbles dramatically. Of course, in the age of show business, there is no need to read a newspaper or magazine.
  • And now Donald Trump, former reality television star, whose use of twitter – in many ways the ultimate “peek-a-boo” medium – has propelled him to having almost a 1 in 4 chance of winning the presidency.

Next week

Next week, in part two of this post, I want to ask the question, how can Postman help us to understand our current world, where the internet is now clearly the dominant medium of our age? Has our public discourse been helped or further hindered by the rise of this technology? Another way of asking this is – is the internet more like the printing press – ushering in a new “age of typography” – or is it more like television – ushering in the ultimate “peek-a-boo” age?