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Are we "Amusing Ourselves to Death?"


"TV Jesus," illustration by Andrew "Zig" Leipzig

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is the title of a book published in 1985 by Dr. Neil Postman (1931 – 2003), a teacher of this Examiner at NYU in his semi-prehistoric graduate student days. Dr. Postman created the “Media Ecology” graduate program at NYU, developing a post-McLuhan framework for the critique of media and culture. The subtitle of the book is “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” and in his critique of the role of television in contemporary (latter twentieth-century) American culture he models the Media Ecology inquiry method.

In closing this first decade of the twenty-first century, twenty-five years after “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a cursory re-examination of Postman’s thesis is suggested by the large part currently played by entertainment industries in American culture.

The Motion Picture Association of America alone currently claims to be “. . . a powerful engine of economic growth that contributes more than $180 billion annually to the U.S. economy.” Without digging too deeply for numbers, from 1986 to 1996 the average cost of making a movie went from $17.5 million to $39.8 million, suggesting that the MPAA may not be exaggerating in 2010. The combined impact of entertainment in general, including sports, television, theater, tourism and so on, even for those of us suspicious of descriptive statistics, may rightly be concluded to be astronomical and represent a significant and growing investment of the time and money of the American (and other) people.

Dr. Postman’s critique, however, is not quantitative, and focuses on “public discourse” in the media environment of pre-Internet communication. The McLuhan exemplary observation of a profound cognitive shift from print to electronic media characterized by the phrase “the medium is the message,” is amended in Postman to exclude its possible interpretation as mere metaphor. He asserts “the medium is the message,” “not the medium as the message.”

Without rewriting his volume for this abbreviated article, Dr. Postman asserts that the visual medium of television intrinsically insists on performance to the detriment of discourse, and thereby shapes a passively receptive audience rather than developing thinkers engaged in the critical demands of text. He details the impact of this perceived influence in science, education, religion, journalism and politics, and makes a case for the prescience of Aldous Huxley over George Orwell in that the citizens of Huxley’s “Brave New World” “. . . come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” where Big Brother imposed conformity in Orwell’s “1984.”

In 2010, it seems, we may have realized both worlds simultaneously. Not only must our talking heads have perfect teeth and hair, but they are reporting on the “forever wars” in clips and sound-bites crammed between carefully crafted exhortations on how, where, when and on what the viewer should spend his or her diminishing income. It takes three hours to watch an hour and a half movie on television due to the increasing time devoted to commercial exhortations, and a newer movie itself will now consist of twice the number of shots of a movie made thirty years ago because audiences must be kept riveted by action. You can no longer escape televised commercial messages in the movie theater or anywhere else including the back seat of a taxicab.

Dr. Neil Postman was both prescient and too modest in that a quarter century later the actuality is even larger, and more complex and destructive than he foresaw. Text has devolved into illiterate “tweets,” speling (sic) is a lost art, art itself is terminally conflated with “entertainment,” museums are obliged to attract “customers,” and teachers have to make their classes “fun” at a time when the average high school graduate can’t name the three branches of the Federal government (which may not matter because civil political discourse has been replaced with contentious, dramatic hyperbole). His central concern was that we were in a race between education and disaster, and that we face the exact challenge Huxley proposed, that “. . . what afflicted the 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.”

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985),
New York
, Viking Penguin.

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