Neil Postman:


"Amusing Ourselves to Death" (1985)

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Postman lived in the age of television, before the explosion of the Internet, and wrote a book that is about the effect of television on the human mind; but just about everything that he wrote in 1985 applies as well to the age of "social media" thirty years later.

Postman himself is a descendant of Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message", as expressed in famous books such as "The Gutenberg Galaxy" and "Understanding Media" ).

Postman was writing in 1985, one year after 1984, and Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 was very much the hot topic of the day. Orwell warned against a "Big Brother" dictatorship of the mind. Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World", less well known, warned against another kind of dystopian future, one in which there is no need for a "Big Brother" to burn all the books because people have lost any desire to read them. Postman correctly pointed out that Orwell's dystopia mostly failed, or succeeded temporarily only in places like the Soviet Union and Mao's China, whereas Huxley's distopia was in full bloom. People were (and are) entertaining themselves by abandoning culture and endorsing superficial entertainment. in 1958 Huxley wrote of "the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant" and that "advocates of universal literacy and a free press... failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". Television and now the Internet found that this "infinite appetite for distractions" can be monetized and this has created an infinite loop: television feeds distractions because they generate revenues, and people watch television because it feeds them distractions. The result is that we are flooded with the "irrelevant".

Postman was writing when a former Hollywood actor was president of the USA (Ronald Reagan) and when Las Vegas was booming. He was writing when celebrities were turning just about anything into entertainment: Ruth Westheimer had a radio show that turned psychoanalysis into entertainment, and Billy Graham was a tele-evangelist who turned religion into entertainment. Everything was being turned into show business, even presidential elections. Thirty years later this is still true, although the Internet has somehow changed the way "show business" works. For example, television still places a lot of value on how a person looks like, whereas most heroes of the Internet are invisible: you don't need to be "telegenic" for your video to "go viral" on YouTube.

Postman introduces a broader definition of "conversation": a conversation is a technology that people use to communicate. That technology determines how and what is communicated. Smoke signals cannot communicate Kant's philosophy or Einstein's physics. Before the telegraph the concept of "daily news" did not exist. The news took a long time to travel and would arrive in a broader context. Today's "ticker" that talks about a murder or an airplane crash comes without the context. The medium determines the kind of "conversation" that we can have. This is not only a variant on "the medium is the message" but also on Edward Sapir's and Benjamin Whorf's theory that language shapes culture as much as culture shapes language.

The original technology for conversation was, quite simply, speech. Speech is present tense and is sound. When humans invented writing, the conversation changed because writing makes the past present and makes speech visible. When we speak the ear and the mouth are the main organs of conversation. When we read a letter (or an email), the eye is the primal organ of the conversation. Postman mentions Lewis Mumford's study of how the clock changed the way we think of the world and mentions eyeglasses as a technology that changed our perception of aging (bodies can be improved). Galileo claimed that the language of nature is mathematics and opened a whole new way of conversing about science. And so forth.

Postman mentions in passing something that is not strictly correlated to the medium/message topic but that has been progressing in parallel with technology: the human passion for creating abstractions, for philosophy, mathematics, theoretical science, and, ultimately, just thinking of more and more abstract "things". Ernst Cassirer, who had written the book "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms" (1929), in "An Essay on Man" (1956) was worried that symbolic activity has progressively distanced the human mind from the real world to the point that it feels like a man is "constantly conversing with himself".

There was a time when speech was considered the primary carrier of truth. It is still the case in universities where students are asked to pass an oral examination and it is still the case in trials where witnesses and defendants are asked to answer questions verbally. However, modern science likes printed matter: when you print it, it is assumed that you thought about it, revised it, and finally accepted it. Someone approved its printing. Now it is easy to think about it, verify it, refute it. Therefore the concept of truth really depends on the medium that is being used to "prove" it. Television implies a different concept of truth than the printing press.

The medium determines what content makes sense and what makes less sense. Before the invention of the printing press, epic poetry made a lot of sense. Afterwards, it rapidly declined and vanished. The medium also determines the kind of audience: speech is shared by almost all humans, reading/writing abilities are shared only by literate people.

The USA just before and right after independence was the most print-oriented place in the world. Reading was not the activity of an elite, but it was done by ordinary people thanks to a very high level of literacy. (Note that the reading of novels wasn't really encouraged, as very few people considered them educational). The lecture hall was a very popular form or after-work entertainment in virtually every town of the USA. This print-oriented life shaped the public discourse for three centuries. The advent of television changed that, and also changed the way books are written and read. Public discourse has been changed by the medium of television; and the book, the newspaper and the magazine had to adapt to it.

Postman is not talking about the amount of junk. A lot of junk was published in printed magazines and newspapers, probably much more than it has been televised. It is the medium that is dangerous, not the content. Postman thinks that, in fact, television is dangerous when it tries to be serious, high-brow, credible. When it is deliberately trivial, it is not dangerous at all. It is the very nature of television that scares Postman.

Postman reminds us that the political debates in the 19th century used to last several hours because each debater was allotted at least one hour (and up to three hours) to make his point and to rebut the rival's point. The most famous of these debates were between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. There were no "slides", no pictures, no videos. Just one person talking for a very long time. The attention span was obviously much greater, the patience of the audience was greater and Postman emphasizes that their ability to understand complex arguments was also much greater (because people like Lincoln were using a highly literate language and because the argument could be understood only if one knew a lot about the issue). Surprisingly, one has to conclude that the audience of the 19th century (not equipped with live news and not equipped with search engines) was far more competent and more intelligent than today's audience. The proliferation of electronic "news" has not played in favor of competence and intelligence.

Both the speaker and the listener expected such lengthy and sophisticated speeches. Postman argues that the speaker and the listener were actually writer and reader. They were influenced by the printed letter. The speaker prepared his speech like a written article, and the listener came prepared to "read" it. Postman thinks that any conversation based on spoken or written language is inevitably full of meaning (regardless to whether it is also true or not). The brain has to do some work. Postman argues that reading inevitably forces rational thinking: you have to make sense of the words that you are reading or hearing. A print-dominated culture tends to be coherent and logical. In fact, it was the printed word that ushered in the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) and that demolished medieval superstitions. The fact that one's opinion were being printed and spread to a vast public photosby the printing press forced him to be as rational as possible. Postman calls this age the "Age of Exposition".

In passing, Postman mentions Frank Presbrey's book "The History and Development of Advertising" (1929), according to which advertising used to be entirely worded until the 1890s, when illustrations, slogans and jingles entered the practice. De facto, before the 1890s the advertisers assumed rationality in their readers, whereas afterwards they assumed that the readers' mind could be easily fooled by psychological tricks such as a picture, a slogan or a jingle.

The first revolution that upset the "Age of Exposition" was the invention of the telegraph, a medium that decoupled transportation and communication (and the first medium that used electricity to represent information). The telegraph allowed a revolution in the way information was produced and consumed because it replaced the local events discussed in the penny newspapers of the 1830s with distant events, and it made the "immediate" matter: something that just happened became more important than something that was happening all the time or something that had happened in the past. Postman calls it "context-free information", and accuses it of "irrelevance, impotence and incoherence". Information became a commodity. Newspapers started competing not for the quality of information but for how timely and how improbably distant it was. This started the age of "news from nowhere addressed to noone". Newspapers flooded people with an avalanche of news to which people had only a very distant connection. Most "telegraphic" information printed in newspapers was "irrelevant" to the daily lives of people: it had no impact on them. It also forced conversations about distant "irrelevant" events, a conversation that inevitably was to be superficial. Irrelevance was also the consequence of the information overload caused by the telegraph. The distant news propagated by telegraph also emphasized the impotence of the everyman. One could react to local news, but was impotent to react to news of a distant event. Most people were impotent to contribute in any way to the events that were taking place even just a few hours away from their town, let alone on the other side of the ocean. Postman writes the effect of the telegraphy was to "dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence".

The power of typography was to collect and organize information, e.g. in a library. The power of the telegraph was to spread information quickly and over a vast territory; but not to organize it or even collect it. The form of consumption was also different: the telegraph provided a brief, data-like statement about the world, whereas a book normally provides an in-depth analysis of some topic, carefully assembled by the writer. The telegraph was about messages, not thoughts; about facts, not explanations. The printed page was a continuous flow of sentences that related facts to facts and provided explanations and opinions. The telegraphic message was a disconnected fact. The telegraph provided a fragmented and discontinuous view of the world. That's what Postman calls "incoherence" because the sequence of messages did not constitute a coherent thought. The sender of the message did not have to provide meaning to the message. It was up to the reader to study more about the fact mentioned in the message, or just ignore it. The telegraph allowed people to know a little about everything, not a lot about something.

The nature of the telegraph is to create the "sensational" and lower the quality of discourse to the superficial.

The next invention to cause a revolution in information was photography, invented by Louis Daguerre and Henry Talbot. Photography too "atomizes" the world, separating an object from its context. A photograph reproduces the image of an object but cannot reproduce a concept. The photograph presents the world as a discrete collection of objects. It does provide the context in which that object exists, nor does it provide any opinion about the object's nature, function, etc. Postman blames the new way of thinking that came with photography for the "graphic revolution" of billboards, posters and adverts.

Postman sees television as extending and compounding the problems introduced by telegraphy and photography. Television too is prone to "irrelevance, impotence and incoherence". Television turns everything into entertainment and show business. Furthermore, television dominates everything: television is a meta-medium, i.e. it is about television that we learn about other media, i.e. that helps us decide which book to buy. Postman warns that there is a point at which irrelevance seems important and incoherence perfectly sane. And that's precisely the nightmarish dystopia of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World".

The second part of the book is more specifically about television, and in particular how everything (religion, politics, etc) becomes show business when it is delivered via television. "Each technology has an agenda of its own" and he thinks that television is entertainment, no matter what. But he never quite explains why this would be. It is easy to agree that a technology does not translate well into another technology, but that happens even without technology: poetry is impossible to translate from one language to another, and the language influences what kind of poetry is written in that language. He then finds television's negative influence on society: that it turns all interactions into entertainment. "Americans no onger talk to each other, they entertain each other". Everybody is becoming a showman or showwoman. He claims that "television is our culture's principal mode of knowing about itself" but apparently also the principal mode to shape itself. He accuses television programs of inherent "anticommunication", even of Dadaism. TV news are "vaudeville acts". And this is creating a public that is the "best entertained but least well-informed". He sees this regression in, for example, the newspaper USA Today (1982). He scorns radio news delivered in 22 minutes: "It has not yet been demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the measure of the world in 22 minutes". One wonders what Postman would have said of Twitter's 140 characters limit (he died in 2003).

Postman points out the fact that an adult tv viewer has probably seen one million commercials in his life, and it is therefore impossible to believe that commercials have no influence on his thinking. Postman suspects that people bombarded with tv commercials (which deliver short and simple messages, often summarized in a jingle) are prone to think that political problems have easy solutions, and that complex arguments are despicable or at least inappropriate. But this observation applies to advertising in general: the same is true of people who read newspapers or magazines flooded with ads. Postman discusses how advertising twists around the pillars of capitalism: capitalism is based on the notion that seller and buyer are rational people who behave rationally, when in fact advertising makes buyers behave irrationally. This is certainly true, but it is not clear why it wouldn't apply to radio and newspapers too (or, for that matter, to the snake-oil peddlers of the Far West). Postman points out that a tv commercial is not about defending the validity of the product but about entertaining the consumer. The emphasis has shifted from product research to market research. "What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer". This is true, but isn't it also true of every other medium? He notices that people are not interested in history, and concludes that "we are being rendered unfit to remember". The only information admitted by television is "simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual": there is no Orwellian "Big Brother" to censor our political discourse because it is not necessary when political discourse is reduced to entertainment.

The enemy of the US democracy is not an ideology like nazism or communism but rather a different kind of ideology, one that springs from technology. Quote: "Technology is ideology". And this is particularly true of technologies of communication. If the automobile reshaped human society and the way we live, including our social and sex lives, imagine what a technology of communication like television can do.

His conclusion is pessimistic: he doesn't see any remedy to the distruction caused by television. Huxley's prophecy is coming true: "What afflicted people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking".

If it is any consolation to the reader, Postman also wrote "I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology". If he was wrong about that one, he may have been wrong about the rest of this book too.