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"The completeness of the resulting control over opinion depends in various ways upon scientific technique (BRAINWASHING). Where all children go to school, and all schools are controlled by the government, the authorities can close the minds of the young to everything contrary to official orthodoxy." —Bertrand Russell (1952)

 
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

by Neil Postman

New York: Viking, 1985, 184pp. ISBN 0-670-80454-1

jump to ESSAY #2

 

ESSAY #1

Neil Postman introduces Amusing Ourselves to Death by touching on two  extreme and opposing prophecies, that of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s  Brave New World.  He highlights the Orwellian warning of severe oppression and  government control that is brought about by the technological ability to watch everyone  everywhere. The Huxleyian warning is juxtaposed to 1984; it warns that humans will  oppress themselves.  So much information and opportunities will be available to civilians  that they will be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” (vii).  Postman presses that the  symptoms of  the Huxleyian prophecy, rather than the Orwellian, are appearing in the  nineteenth and twentieth century.  His examination of the effects of electronic media on  society brings to light current characteristics in our culture that resemble Huxley’s  predictions.  In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argues that television forms a new form  of epistemology. The nature of the new form of knowledge, he claims, creates a less  intelligent culture.  People of this new culture expect everything around them to cater to  their amusement, and all sense of seriousness and historical context is lost. To validate  his argument, Postman uses the first half of his book to illustrate how a communication  medium shapes culture and the definition of intelligence. In the later part of his book, he  contrasts the television age against the typographic age, and points out the altered  definition of intelligence and the new form of culture that develops.  He is concerned  with what type of culture television will create, and whether the new form of knowing is  best for human thought.  Postman first emphasizes Marshal McLuhan’s belief that the medium is the  message.  The limitations and capabilities of the method used for public discourse directly affect how people interact with each other.  For instance, oral based cultures  differed from typographic cultures in their forms of thinking.  Beowulf, for example,  originates in an oral culture.  It is full of mnemonics, and its elaborate accounts of  combating evil beasts and dragons is not drawn out in a clear sequence of events, nor  does it welcome questions and analytical thought.  It is solely focused on appealing to the  memory of others, and the elaborate accounts primarily encourage other people to create  more elaborate accounts about their own capabilities.  The primary focus of these people  is to be remembered through tales and accounts, which illustrates how their oral mode of  communication affects their culture.   Typography, however, allows for a sense of  permanence.   Once something is written down it remains in society’s consciousness.  As  a result, information is reflected on, and analyzed. It also creates a context, which would  not be present otherwise.  Ideas are combined, or built upon each other.  Discussion,  either political or religious, assumes that participants have previous knowledge of the  topics they are discussing, so that it is not simply a random speech, but an addition onto a  linear sequence of events.  Consequently, history exists in the Typographic world.  Its  culture demands that citizens recall the past in order to understand what is said in the  present.  In the television age context and history are not required for comprehension.  The  new form of culture begins to develop with the invention of the telegraph and the  subsequent photograph.  The telegraph provides an opportunity for remote areas to  communicate; a conflict arises because there is very little information that is truly  relevant in both destinations.  It appears that the hype and excitement over the capability  to communicate remotely demands that information be shared.  As a result, information that has no context for or relevance to its receivers, becomes acceptable as news.   Postman goes on to explain how once relevant news continues on into a broadcast of  irrelevance after the invention of the telegraph.  Television expands on the development  of entertainment and reduces serious discourse through its use of both foreign material  and visual images.  Visual images require no previous knowledge to understand them, or  to believe the images exist [this brings the MOON LANDING HOAX to mind].  Thus, television provides information that is both irrelevant  to the viewer and requires no previous knowledge to understand.  Consequently,  Huxley’s prophecy, and Postman’s warning conclusions become applicable.  Postman  believes that the typographic culture and its ability to think, reflect and analyze the  information presented is better than a culture that prevents it. He warns that the  television culture will lose the ability to think critically because we will only accept  amusement.  He worries that we will fail to recognize the seriousness of situations if they are presented in an entertaining way. We will loose a sense of history, which the  typographic culture preserves.   The questions Postman proposes to answer in his work are appropriate and  accurately cover an examination of the television era in comparison to the typographic  age.  He approaches the question of television’s epistemology by first examining the  epistemology of typography.  He both explains his understanding of epistemology and  demonstrates how it shapes a culture and is shaped by the medium of communication.   With the term, and its influence reveled, Postman captures the question of the television’s  effects on culture in one clear inquiry.  He combines numerous narrow theories into one  macro inquiry, without losing the significance of the micro results.   With the question of  television’s epistemology established, it is fitting for Postman to pose his second question.  He asks, “What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking?” (160)   His second question effectively ties into his first inquisition into what type of knowledge  television fosters.  Once the effect of television as a dictator of a cultures definition of  knowledge is established, it is imperative to ask if this new definition of knowledge is  better than the previous one, if progress does indeed occur.    Postman is all encompassing in his efforts to answer his pressing questions.  He  makes references to over forty different notable people and written works from Plato to  Billy Graham.  One of his best examples is found in his examination of the Lincoln and  Douglas debates.  He clearly demonstrates how the typography communication medium  determines how public discourse is carried out, how political messages are organized, and  how intelligence expectations are developed in a culture. Lincoln and Douglas’s speeches  are long in length and require previous knowledge in order to be understood.  They also  appeal to a person’s reason rather than passion. They, therefore, become an accurate  example of how typography dictated cultural requirements for both the informer and the  audience.  Postman’s key ability to solidify his warnings lies in his comparisons of the  typographic and television eras.  He presents a wide array of examples of cultural  characteristics in both eras.  He provides a series of typographic models in numerous  social situations.  He uses Lincoln and Douglas as a focus point for typographic oriented  politics, but he also cites other politicians of the time such as Thomas Jefferson, or  lawyers like John Marshal, whom he references in his bibliography so that accuracy can  be confirmed. Religious examples are also unitized by Postman to illustrate the differences in  forms of knowledge.  There has been a notable increase in a churches attempt to  entertain, as opposed to instruct.  It seems reasonable that the differences among churches  that share the same core beliefs are a result of numerous churches embracing the  television’s form of information while some still withhold the older typographic customs.   For example many evangelistic churches are entertaining their congregation with  Christian pop or rock music.  They entertain their youth with laser-tag excursions or  gymnasium games accompanied by modern music.  Sermons are accompanied by clips of  the matrix, or Christian interpretations of popular shows and movies.  Television  programs such as “7 th  Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel” also personify this change  from linear learning development to entertaining information.  Even the Pope’s visit to  Toronto two years ago turned into a major media frenzy and resulted in televised  entertainment.  Aside from the example of churches that have not turned towards  entertaining their congregation, Postman points out the expectation in the typographic era  for religious literacy.  The typographic culture defines literacy as the dominant form of  knowledge and method used to spread knowledge.  He also points out the importance  denominations of Christianity placed on literacy and critical thinking by highlighting the  role of numerous denominations in establishing educational facilities.  For instance,  Presbyterians founded the University of Tennessee and Washington, and numerous other  institutions are listed under other denominations.  Postman, after thoroughly examining the exposition era, moves onto the  ascendancy of the television age.  He explains the effects of the telegraph in order to  demonstrate the movement towards triviality with electronic communication. His account of the telegraph’s role in altering the nature of news is rational and the results are still  visible today.  For instance, there are now many national and large region newspapers.  Further, many of the community serving newspapers, like the Times Colonists, are a part  of one large newspaper company.  The so called community-directed newspapers include  the most entertaining stories out of the stories collected by all the different parts of the  newspaper company, and contain only a small portion of news that is directly related to  the specific area the newspaper is directed towards.  Postman is accurately able to  illustrate how television has furthered the triviality of information.  He does this  successfully by looking at both the content of television, and the way it is presented.  He  points out, in an undeniable manor, the fast past manor in which information is presented.   One can easily witness this by watching the morning news.  A series of different, and  attractive looking people, will present weather, traffic, sports, and current events.  The  intervals for each role are relatively short, even the anchorman, who appears to speak for  the longest period of time, switches between different stories, and local, regional, national  and international information at a rapid pace.  After a series of thirty second commercials,  the previous information presented on the news is not recalled, and will most likely be  permanently forgotten.  Consequently, it is possible to agree with Postman in his  insistence that television does not create opportunities to reflect on or examine the  information presented.   If news is not televised for the purpose of informing the viewer,  it is seeking to entertain us.  Further, since information and events are flashed before our  eyes, and then forgotten, television is unable to preserve history for us, nor require us to  remember history.  A culture that does not have the communication tools to validate the  accuracy of the information they receive is rationally worse off than a culture that can.  It is not understandable that people who are entirely capable of sophisticated analytical  thought, as demonstrated by the typographic era, should reduce themselves to  experiencing only short specs of trivial information which do not ask them to question and consider anything.  Thinking less can not be rational progress; it creates a vulnerable society that knows no better than to trust whatever it is told.   Postman’s conclusions are clearly supported by his excellent use of references  and concise examples and observations.  He is able to show a clear transition from the  typographic age to the television era, and illustrate their differences between them.  A  change in epistemology from the ability to know and understand information to the  amount of information received regardless of comprehension or recollection clearly takes  place.  However, there is an assertion made by Postman that may be questionable.  It  occurs in his description of typographic America.  He informs his readers that “reading  was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all  kinds of people.” (34) He also makes a reference to a classless society.  It appears that he  may have looked over the slavery that existed within the typographic era.  Native  Americans who were forced to work on plantations or in American homes were  frequently forbidden to read or write, and were often punished if they were caught doing  it.  On the other hand, the recognition by slave owners that literacy is an effective tool,  enough to be a possible threat to their authority, strengthens Postman’s depiction of  typography as being an effective medium in creating a knowledgeable culture.  There is clear and present danger that the television era will create a vastly  unintelligent population.  The definition of knowledge itself will change from  comprehending an idea to simply acknowledging its existence.   If the form of thought encouraged by the typographic age is not preserved, we will begin to live in a culture  where no one will ask questions; history will be lost amidst constantly changing  irrelevant news, and the seriousness of events will disappear into an entertaining smile.   Hopefully the emergence of the internet as a massive source for complex and thought  provoking information will enable society to retain the typographic definition of  knowledge and allow civilization to intellectually thrive.

 

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ESSAY #2

 Every culture conducts its conversations in various manners such as speech, text, or images, each with its own symbols. In this book, Postman considers the epochal shift he sees in American culture from public conversations dominated by words to those dominated by images. This transition parallels the ascendancy of television as the predominant medium of cultural conversation, and hence the primary mode of public discourse. He starts with two assumptions: First, the medium of a conversation restricts its scope. Messages transmittable in one medium may not be transmittable in another, at least efficiently. For example, the primitive medium of smoke signals is not suitable for philosophical discourse. Another example is provided by the injunction in the Decalogue forbidding material representations of YHWH. The implicit understanding is that any image is insufficient to convey the fulness of the deity and hence amounts to a distortion. Thus, mediums by their inherent nature shape the contours of cultural conversation. These mediums are our “languages” not unlike Galileo’s remark on mathematics as the language of nature. They serve as metaphors for the reality being conveyed. As Northrop Frye once remarked concerning words, The written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives us not the familiar remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned up hallucination. (12-13) Second, these languages of conversation are a dominant influence in shaping the culture’s intellectual and social histories. Postman believes that every medium has resonance, a pervasive influence far outside its original context. Consider for example, the relative veracity we accord a written statement over a verbal statement. Truthfulness, at least our evaluation thereof, is colored by the medium. This situation is not unlike that of classical rhetoric, where truth was a matter of content and presentation. Thus, the mediums of conversation partly define the culture’s epistemology and hence its notions of intelligence. In this manner, the metaphors of language manifest themselves as cultural expressions. Postman notes that America was founded by intellectuals who valued literacy. The printed word had a virtual monopoly on the modes of public discourse throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To these two observations Postman attributes the high literacy rates in the early United States as compared to Europe and an American conversational style that nowadays would be considered literary. He gives, for example, an excerpt from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1854: Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles in issue between the parties, and this vast concourse of peoples shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us. (qtd 48-49) The public nature of these debates suggests that the general populace was comfortable and capable of understanding such complex patterns in discourse. That the debators also employed historical allusions and rhetorical devices further suggests the audience was sufficiently learned as to appreciate them. Postman argues that the linear logic inherent to the typographic medium encouraged rationality and order. Throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, “American public discourse, being rooted in the bias of the printed word, was serious, inclined toward rational argument and presentation, and, therefore, made up of meaningful content” (52). This was the “Age of Exposition” which he claims has been usurped by an “Age of Show Business” of which television is its chief medium. The transition was ushered by technological advances on two fronts: the invention of the telegraph and advancements in image production and display, starting from the early history of photography. Telegraphy brought an onslaught of fragmented, decontextualized information; the many facts served as “headlines” but without relevance or substance for action, since for Postman,“information derives its importance from the possibilities of action” (68). Photography’s biases are in another direction: it can evoke, but of itself makes no opinions and has no necessary context. Pictures cannot capture the totality of the abstract, invisible, or internal, but serve as stimuli to evoke within us the suggestion towards the abstract, invisible, or internal. The confluence of telegraphy and photography’s biases Postman calls the “peek-a-boo” world. Television gave the epistemological biases of telegraph and the photograph their most potent expression, raising the interplay of image and instantcy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection. (78) This underscores Postman’s belief that any technology which serves as a communicative medium is a “metaphor waiting to unfold” (84). It bears the biases of the manner of conversation by which it interacts with society. Technological impacts on society may be restricted by imposed regulations, as is the case in countries without freedom of speech, or without a free market system to fuel advertisements, or even without regular electricity; but such is not the case in contemporary America which has experienced numerous waves of technological revolutions. Because all subjects of public interest are in part spoken through television, the public understanding of them will be shaped by the biases of the televised medium. Television has become both myth (`a la Roland Barthes) as a latent worldview and culture because we live and interact with it daily, but do not question it. We talk much about what is on television but not of the medium itself. Thus, Postman pleads us to ask, “What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?” (84) Recalling the earlier remarks on the role and biases of typography in early American history, Postman observes that judgment of a text is usually based on truthfulness and clarity of reasoning, but for a television, it is based on the skillful arrangement of images. Indeed, television is not a medium well-suited for extended intellectual discourse or exposition. To watch people expound or think is considered by most to be boring and not visually enticing. It is thus not “good” television. His central thesis is that television is not only entertaining, but insinuates that all presentations must be entertaining. “Entertainment is the super-ideology of all discourse on television” (87). Since television is “culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself . . . how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged” (92). In the manner of Irving Berlin, “There’s No Business but Show Business”(98). For Postman images have no context except if we are told what we are seeing transpired some time past or if we possess some knowledge (apart from the image) which would allow us to place them in a historical or geographic context. An incoherent series of images thus handicaps our ability to make a reasoned, informed interpretation and contextualization of the information. Viewers struggle (if at all they attempt) to integrate such information into coherent history. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomena is the television commercial. In contrast to typographic advertisements which must by nature of the medium be coherent and propositional to communicate, television commercials entice via drama and images. Their mantra is to “provide a slogan, a symbol or focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves” (135). Televison commercials focus on the character and nature of the consumer, and the product is merely presented as an instant solution to the consumer’s problem or need. It is what Postman calls “instant therapy” (130), and he fears that this pervasive discourse engenders a false expectation that all problems and needs– social, physical, emotional, or psychological– are instantly solvable via the proper application of certain technologies or methodologies. Over time these expectations will become increasingly normative in the culture. Postman is not concerned with television programs whose overt purpose is to entertain, but rather programs whose purposes are otherwise, but subtly packaged as entertainment by the nature of the televised medium. As a first example, Postman considers the daily news. He observes that television news programs by their desultory nature hinder the formation of coherence and context pivotal to its interpretation and evaluation. In fact, the public has no expectation of coherence and continuity from television. As Robert McNeil wrote, television news strives “to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone. . . ” (qtd 105). Furthermore, the juxtaposition of music and commercials within a news program presents an atmosphere that is often contrary to the seriousness of the news reported. For Postman this fragmented, entertaining presentation causes the viewer to consider the news as trivia– disconnected, irrelevant facts amusingly packaged and voiced by an attractive anchorman. Postman goes so far as to suggest that in an image-focused culture, the veracity of a message may become increasingly associated with the credibility of the speaker, a credibility derived in large part from personal appearance. Since Postman believes that “television is the paradigm for our conception of public information,” the current manner of presentation amounts to disinformation, trivia that is both useless and distracting. A curious corollary is that the Orwellian nightmare of government control on printed matter is hardly a threat in a culture where television rules and defines public discourse. Books are not banned, but displaced by “a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, non-substantive, non-historical, and non-contextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment” (141). Ever since the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates, television has been increasingly influential in the political process. In the realm of politics, Postman takes his cue from Reagan’s remark that “Politics is just like show business” (qtd 125). The concern of show business is appearance. So Postman wonders, “If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether” (126). Furthermore, political commercials are advertisements for candidates. In light of the above remarks on television commercials, political commercials do not present the candidate as himself so much as an image of the audience. The commercials focus on projecting a favorable, memorable image of the candidate and not on presenting evidence for the character and beliefs of the candidate. Image is the rule. Another arena in which Postman examines television’s influence is that of religion, especially as practiced by televangelists. His first observation is that not everything is televisable, a corollary of the observation that “not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another” (117). In fact, Postman argues that religion is presented on television in the manner of entertainment. He notes that on such programs the message is not central but rather the preacher, and the goal is to attract the largest audience. The fancy images and displays serve to dazzle rather than to bring into worship so that God is subordinate to the image of the preacher: “Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf” (123). For Postman, the main difficulty is that television speaks mainly through concrete images, which are not as conducive to promoting abstractions as typography. Television cannot evoke a sacredness of space and experience, and also has a strong bias towards secularism; both the context of the shows and the context of the medium are secular and often profane. Perhaps the most insidious examples of the trend towards televised amusements is the plenitude of educational programs on television. Indeed, Postman does not deny that television can be educational, but he fears that the manner by which television educates will become the only legitimate and acceptable manner through which children understand and receive instruction. “Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them” (144). As an example, he considers the possible effects of the popular program “Sesame Street” on children’s attitude towards the traditional classroom: Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television is a private preserve.. . . Whereas to behave oneself in school means to observe rules of public decorum, television watching requires no such observances, has no concept of public decorum. Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself. (144) For Postman, these considerations are tantamount to a curriculum. Television is a curriculum which, contrary to traditional views that learning requires great exertion and self-mastery, identifies teaching with entertainment so that the classroom becomes an arena for amusement. Furthermore, Postman highlights three “commandments” by which educational television programs seem to abide: they should have no prerequisites, should induce no perplexity, and should avoid exposition. If followed, these “commandments” obviously resist the scope and content of educational television programs, and (of greater fear to Postman) may become inherent to the student’s attitude towards learning. Finally, psychological studies suggest television-based learning is less-effective than traditional typographic methodologies so that an unreserved adoption of television’s role in education would be rash. Postman is not optimistic about our culture’s eventual understanding of television and other communicative mediums, an understanding which is central to avoiding the dangers of their inherent biases. His only reasonable solution, albeit an unlikely one, is that of widespread education through the schools on mass media. Most educational curriculums have yet to address the nature and biases of typography, much less television. A torrent of questions are open: What is information? Or more precisely, what are information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? . . . Is there a moral bias to each information form? What does it mean to say that there is too much information? How would one know? What redefinitions of important cultural meanings do new sources, speeds, contexts and forms of information require?. . . How do different forms of information persuade? . . . How do different information forms dictate the type of content that is expressed? (160) The road ahead is long indeed.

 

 

 

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