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.]

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Trouble In Resolutionville

Well, we have some trouble here. It is already the second day of my resolution to write for ten minutes, and I don't want to do it! This means that I may just ramble on here with nothing at all to say. That would not be good, since I really do have things to say. I'm just too lazy to try to organize all of it. Make that: I'm just too lazy to try to organize any of it.

Haikus About Work and Children

When Nathan wakes up

at one or two or three

he cries until fed.

Work is great. My job

feeds my family. Reading

procedures is dull.

Amusing Ourselves To Death

I'm in the midst of a book with this title. It is a frighteningly lucid description of the way television has shaped the way we look at the world. The problem is not just the fact that people produce and broadcast bad TV shows. It is fundamental to the way the medium works. I will give a complete review when I'm done.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

New Year's Resolutions

It's resolution time! This year's list is rather short. My hope is that by keeping it small I might actually make some progress.

  1. Do my best to leave work by 5:00 Pm. Denise (that would be my beloved wife) said this is one of the best things I could do to help her in the new year.

    To do this successfully, I'll have to focus on leaving for work earlier and probably cutting down on lunches and coffees with friends.

  2. Spend at least 10 solid minutes a day writing.

    For a very long time I have felt that I just consume and absorb information without producing much of anything. I need to have some outlet! My writing can be in a journal, this blog, the back of an envelope, anything, as long as I'm writing.

A Week To Forget

This evening is the last night of a two-week break from work. My most excellent employer, Guidant, has a company-wide shutdown from Christmas Eve through January 1st. This year they threw in January 2nd as the floating holiday. The result is that I could take two vacation days and get two weeks off. Nothing to complain about in that, is there?

Now, the first week was great. We had a very nice Christmas celebration. But starting on the Friday after Christmas my kids started getting sick. Soon, all four of them were down with the flu. Shortly afterwards my wife got sick as well.

I can say that it could have been much worse. We did not have the stomach flu, thank God. But everyone was moping about, and there were several nights where I was awakened a number of times by children wanting to be comforted, or wanting to sleep in our bed, or wanting water or medicine. The sleep depravation was getting very severe. But we have appeared to weathered it, with the only remaining symptoms being tiredness and slight lack of appetite. The high fevers are a sad memory, and it looks like we are on the mend.

This ended up being one of those vacations which will make returning to work a very recuperative experience.