“Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Nearly a quarter-century has passed since Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, but its mordant commentary on the state of American “public discourse” in the television era is no less relevant or important today. In fact, reading this succinct and responsibly researched treatise in 2008, when the Internet is the communication and marketing tool of choice, one can’t help but notice that many of Postman’s brave insights might easily apply to that medium as well. I leave that premise for the experts to tackle, however. What is clear is that our culture and our “national conversation” are still very much in the grip of the senior technology, the television, the effects of which can be readily observed in our consumption habits, our political campaigns, and the content of our social lives. Postman begins by rehearsing two literary warnings. The more familiar Orwellian warning is that government powers might seize control of information channels and limit the range of speech through totalitarian psychology and force. The less famous – and according to Postman, more pernicious – scenario was described by Aldous Huxley, who foresaw people choosing for themselves to ignore information and allowing public speech to “drown in a sea of irrelevance.”

    In just 164 pages, Postman issues a sharp warning of his own, working from Huxley’s prescient worry, that we are approaching that “sea of irrelevance” and indeed, might already be wading in its putrid tidewaters. Working from the well-documented theorem that television shapes the way we learn, influences the way we process information, and alters the capacity of our memories, Postman examines several aspects of our discourse that have changed in light of the shift from a text-based to an image-based system of communication. Short of saying we have become dumber (which, though likely true, might alienate even patient readers), Postman shows how political discourse, teaching techniques, consumer acumen, and even parenting have witnessed dramatic deteriorations in efficiency and effectiveness. In every case, delivery of substantive content, our attention span, overall ratio of comprehension, and ultimately, audience retention, are all circumscribed – which is to say damaged – by the advent and preponderance of television in modern life. As a result, we have become lazy, diffident, and moody as consumers and users of information. If you’re weary of this diagnosis and are loath to hear another intellectual scolding our collective complacency, Postman’s suggestions for countering the desolation of our minds might just surprise you.

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