Thursday, January 08, 2004

Recent Book: Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some time. I started it once several years ago, got distracted from it and never went back. Then, around the turn of the new year, a radio station was talking about people who he died in 2003. Neil Postman's name was mentioned, so I found and dusted off my copy and dove in.

This was an incredibly insightful book. I, like many others, have long felt that television's influence on society was, on the whole, extremely destructive. But I had not been able to explain why so much on TV is so bad. Why did TV draw such consistently horrible content? Why were examples of intellectually challenging and coherent programming so incredibly rare?

My first tendency has been to simply blame the people in charge of television production. If the people creating the shows are focused on the trivial and the banal then we would expect their show to reflect that. But this never really explained why so many of the people producing TV shows are unable to deal with any kind of serious intellectual content.

Postman makes the argument that it is the medium of television itself that drives such vapid content. Television, by it's very nature, demands at least two things:

  1. All information must be presented in a "context free" manner. You will never hear an announcer say, "If you missed yesterday's episode, don't bother watching today." This is especially true of the news. All stories are given in little snippets that are entirely self-contained, without any real background or context provided. That would take way too much time.

  3. Most importantly: Everything on television takes the form of entertainment. From Sesame Street to the evening news, everything is a form of entertainment. As our society has come to accept television as the standard mode by which we know the world, all other media have to change to mimick it. For example, newspapers have shorter stories and more pictures, and a radio story would be considered very "in-depth" if it took ten full minutes to consider a single topic. Most significantly, schools have to adapt to entertain their students. Educational topics that can not be reduced to entertainment are not successfully taught.

On Politics

In a passage that presciently described the Clinton presidency:

If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact the he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying. [pg. 102.]

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