Amusing Ourselves to Death
September 21, 2021
Neil Postman's prescient critique of the modern media landscape is centred on an unusual interpretation of the way the television manipulates how we communicate. The medium determines the message, and the message of the television drowns us "in a sea of irrelevance". The implications, thirty-odd years later are both the same and surprisingly different.
This article's ideology: Since the invention of the telegraph, information has become increasingly atomized, incoherent, and irrelevant. Our media technology encourages entertainment, not discourse. Information 'from nowhere', 'to no one' about which we can do nothing. We don't have to lean in. Scroll to Summary
Neil Postman's prescient critique of the modern media landscape is centred on an unusual interpretation of the way the television manipulates how we communicate.
in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history ... people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think ...
there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one ... [no one] would deprive us of information ... [they] would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism ... the truth would [not] be concealed from us ... [it] would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance ... [we would become, not] captive culture ... [but] a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy ... As Huxley remarked [in our focus on tyranny, we fail] “to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
[in Huxley's vision] people are [not] controlled by inflicting pain ... they are controlled by inflicting pleasure ... [it's not] that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
Technology determines the form and content of knowledge
Postman spends a large proportion of the book emphasising the fact that technology introduces a bias into the way we think about the world. This particular fact is the cornerstone of his critique.
For Postman, a technology is a physical apparatus. We could consider the brain a technology, or the printing press. From these technologies spring a medium—the use to which a technology is put. The brain produces the mind. The printing-press, a book.
Importantly, these technologies have a bias in the medium they produce. Where the printing-press could have produced images, it was rather more inclined to produce literature. Where the television could be used as a source of light for reading, or even to read text on the screen, it is rather more inclined to produce visual entertainment.
These technological biases are reproduced in the ways that we consume the medium it produces. For this, we are best served to quote Postman's inspiration, Marshall McLuhan:
the medium ... shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.
Postman takes this some distance further:
Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility.
He notes, for example, that the smoke signals of ancient cultures did not lend themselves terribly well to philosophical debate. The messages embedded in the smoke must be concise in the extreme, and the thought that goes into producing them must reflect this concision.
More concretely, for the influence of technological form on thought, Postman reflects on Lewis Mumford's philosophy of the clock:
the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded ... Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events
The technology, through the medium it produces, fixes a conception of the content of that medium in our minds. And through that process, influences the content of our culture:
Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms ... the bias of a medium sits heavy, felt but unseen, over a culture
The typographic mind and the Age of Exposition
Postman's argument centres on a shift in knowledge production from the technology of the printed word to the technology of the television.
He says of the United States of America:
from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of
This is partly a legacy of Protestant tradition, partly that the U.S. was founded by an intellectual class, and largely because of the monopoly of printed information as a source of information.
This fact meant that citizens of the day were biased towards:
a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response
The medium of print, you see, is a medium of logical and ordered discourse. Postman writes:
it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence
The content may be trivial, but the "written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic ... content" or else it is nonsense. The result of this is that the reader (or listener) must bring certain resources to the table. They must parse the content, more or less rigorously depending on the trustworthiness of the source. And thus, quoting Walter Ong, this sequential and propositional nature of written language encourages the "analytic management of knowledge". An emphases on orderly logical discourse and the analysis of that logic and order.
The U.S. citizen of the day was, as a result, discoursive to a fault. Postman quotes Tocqueville:
"An American,” [Tocqueville] wrote, “cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting"
Postman pays particular attention to the intellectual capacities implied by the very fact of the Lincoln-Douglas debates—a series of immensely long and subtle debates between two presidential candidates of the day. For as long as seven hours, audiences in the thousands would listen to sentences that today would be extraordinarily difficult to parse. Postman quotes Lincoln's opening:
It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground
This was an Age of Exposition, and these were a people of immense analytic capacities. From the printed word to the speech based on its form and the consumption of these things by the audiences of the day, the culture was one of analysis and ordered thought.
The televised mind and the Age of Showbusiness
Postman takes as a point of cultural departure from this rational age, the telegraph and the photograph.
Before the telegraph information could only move as fast as humans and thus, a constraint of space existed in the movement of information. After the telegraph, this constraint was collapsed and a three-pronged 'attack' on discourse commenced. The telegraph introduced:
on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence
This due in large part to the fact that the telegraph lent legitimacy to context-free information. Features of novelty and curiosity were elevated, and features of meaning took on less power.
Before the telegraph, news was local or otherwise of a 'timeless' nature. The distance and time---the space--- news had to travel permitted nothing else. As the telegraph collapsed space, we were left with "news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular":
telegraphy made relevance irrelevant
Postman suggests the reader ask a poignant question "how often does ... information provided ... [cause] you to alter your plans ... take some action ... or provide insight into some problem"? The answer is, of course, not oftenr. The telegraph "dramatically altered" the "information-action ratio":
The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.
This de-emphasis on actionable information amplified the impotence of the consumer, and we lost some sense of being able to control the contingencies of our lives.
Intelligence became about knowing many things rather than knowing about those things.
Postman moves on to the invention, through the daguerreotype, of photography:
photography is a language that speaks only in particularities. Its vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation. Unlike words and sentences, the photograph does not present to us an idea or concept about the world, except as we use language itself to convert the image to idea. By itself, a photograph cannot deal with the unseen, the remote, the internal, the abstract ... You can only photograph a particular fragment of the here-and-now
Photography also de-emphasises context. Indeed, the "point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way". Postman remarks that in combination with telegraphy:
The world is atomized. There is only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be told
Exposition, in this way, is largely eliminated. Indeed, the anchor of a photograph with "news-from-nowhere" gives an illusory sense of connection---"It created an apparent context for the 'news of the day.' And the 'news of the day' created a context for the photograph". We are left with 'pseudo-context', "a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use" and Postman makes his first connection to the title of his book:
pseudo-context provides ... not action, or problem-solving, or change ... the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives ... is to amuse
Postman goes on:
this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.
Postman's devil: the television
Writing in the 1980's, Postman's key concern was the culmination of the telegraph and the photograph in the television.
Returning again to a discussion of technological bias:
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun
This emphasis on entertainment is inimical to thinking, because the act of thinking, depicted visually, is disconcerting and boring. It slows the tempo and creates an impression of uncertainty. There are occasions in which the television is used to carry coherent language, or thought in process, but these are marginal events.
And thus, Postman laments that the imperative of television to entertain shifts the role of discourse out of the centre of our information production and replaces it with the generation of fragmentary and emotional impressions. He uses, for example, the notion of the 'credibility' of news anchors.
The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter
Postman notes that this kind of impression-making, fragmentary as it is, necessarily trivialises the truth that is being conveyed. Information, no matter how grave, is punctuated by advertisements that "defuse the import of the news":
One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on television for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching television news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely
Postman goes on to suggest that embedded in this surrealistic frame, television news contains a theory of anticommunication. On par with Dadaism, nihilism, vaudeville, or schizophrenia, this is a discourse that abandons logic and order.
Television, in this way, alters our understanding of what 'being informed' implies. The information provided is not false, but misleading---creating an illusion of knowledge but in fact providing none. Depriving us of a coherent and contextual understanding of the world. The fundamental assumption of this understanding is that the world is discontinuous, not continuous. The most alarming result of which is that there is no room for contradiction. In a discontinuous world, contradiction cannot exist because the fragments are, by default, not connected even if they disagree.
This trivialisation of information then spreads. The cultural dominance television had achieved the power to define the form of news, and how we respond. Print media takes on this fragmentary and visual emphasis. The language of aural media becomes increasingly decontextualised and discontinuous. Even the content of news takes on aspects of entertainment, as the news of celebrities becomes presented as cultural content. Postman concludes:
we move rapidly into an information environment which may rightly be called trivial pursuit
The assault of the advertisement
Postman devotes a chapter to the way in which the television commercial erodes our mechanisms of discourse. He suggests that the commercial:
has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital
Capitalism is based on the notion that competition is good when agents are rational. That they are engaging in decision-making according to mutual self-interest. That agents know both what is good for them but also what is good. Advertisements obviate this. Using images and slogans, ads are no longer engaging in propositional content and instead making appeals to emotion:
A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama—a mythology, if you will—of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it
Indeed ads are less often about the product and more often about the buyer---their fears and fancies and what might make them buy:
The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy
Postman notes that, as the most "voluminous form of public communication", ads would necessarily be adopted as a legitimate form of discourse. In doing so, we would adopt the corollary philosophy of communication: brevity of expression addressing the psychological needs of the viewer:
short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems
His preoccupation is with the role of this new philosophy on political discourse. Politicians rise and parties fall as television presents them as forms of entertainment. The politician "does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience". Politicians become a symbol or focus that viewers can find themselves in:
As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men always make their gods in their own image. But to this, television politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.
Television also precludes the imposition of history into an understanding of politics. The "television needs to move fragments of information, not to collect and organize them". It is not so much that we are 'refusing to remember', but that we are 'rendered unfit to remember'. Using the thoughts of Terence Moran, Postman summarises:
with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective. In the absence of continuity and context, he says, “bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole"
This television mirror simply presents you as you are today, with nothing said about before.
The Huxleyan Warning
At the close of the book, Postman returns to his introductory notion of the Orwellian and Huxleyan vision. In Orwell, culture becomes a prison. In Huxley, culture becomes a burlesque.
Orwell ... [taught] us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny ... that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.
Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate ... people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act
It is the Huxleyan vision that most concerns Postman. The Orwellian vision should concern us, but we are armed against it. But:
what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?
This is no formulated ideology, but rather "the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation" though no less an ideology. It still imposes a set of relations between people an ideas. Simply an ideology with no opposition.
Perhaps in keeping with his critique on the philosophy implied in advertising, that all problems are solvable, Postman keeps his suggestions for addressing the troubling implications of the Age of Show Business terse:
only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium
Postman's critique is scathing, but well constructed. He does not want us to conclude that this change in media changes, literally, our cognitive capacities. He thinks this is likely, but his argument does not require it. He simply wants us to note that new mediums change the structure of discourse by encouraging some uses of the mind and certain kinds of truth.
He also makes clear that the television, as entertainment, provides benefits that are obvious. He explicitly notes, for example, the lonely or infirm. He also exhorts us to be open to benefits that are not yet obvious.
But his troubled tone feels as though it cuts even deeper to the bone now than then. Today, the 'news-from-nowhere' and 'addressed to no one' has grown to the extent that it creates an electricity demand that ranks it higher than all but two countries. The trivialisation of news, and the widespread gathering (or perhaps we might call it sharing) of information rather than the knowing of it seems, if anything, more stark.
The three-pronged attack of:
large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence
continues at pace. Twitter posts and TikTok tidbits abound, and our "spiritual devastation" from this fragmented public discourse seems as though it is nearing some kind of existential zenith in:
- the toll social media takes on our wellbeing;
- the obvious and toxic manipulation of public opinion; and
- the growing inability to disconnect, that is so troubling we are starting to legislate to address it.
But, Postman leaves us some breadcrumbs early on that should spark hope. His argument hints at some kind of parallel structure to the kinds of truth we accept. He notes:
Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice ... I mean only to call attention to the fact that there is a certain measure of arbitrariness in the forms that truth-telling may take.
To illustrate his point, Postman briefly discusses the transition from an oral tradition to a written one.
Postman tells us that once, we took proverb as justice. The proverb that satisfied the parties, in some cultures, was taken as a legitimate ruling. Postmant quotes Walter Ong, who says "[proverbs] are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them". Postman goes on to note that concept of proverbs as a form of justice would be ridiculed in a courtroom. The truth is primarily found in the written law, though remnants remain in oral testimony and the delivery of a sentencing.
He also relates to us the use of rhetoric to the ancient Greeks. Rhetoric—oral argument—was not simply an art form among the Grecians but:
a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth ... To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood
Today, we have something that can often look quite close to these more ancient forms of truth. The information overload of today might be, in some cases, better served by a platform like Twitter, in which we create modern day proverbs, or a medium like podcasting, in which we create modern day rhetoric. The key is to use them in concert, and with care. I'll use Postman's own example to illustrate.
Postman makes mention of the academic world, in which the oral testimony is considered a insufficient means of evidence. The written word is assumed less casual, more easily verified and refuted, and thus the written word is closer to the truth than the spoken. Yet he also makes brief mention of the fact that today "we moderns make of truth and quantification ... Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing".
There is no better time than today to note the crumbling facade of academia in the eye of the public. During this pandemic, the political haste to 'defer' to the 'science' created a slew of messes we have yet to recover from. The academic world was simply not capable of creating a coherent narrative out of its attempts at quantification. The result was public policy that was as baffling as it was demeaning. The advice changed without warning, and yet was presented with a confidence that belied the fact that no one quite knew just what exactly should be done.
This is in part because, for the academic industry, knowledge production is the product of the scientific method—a belief system that is:
a machine for generating exaggerations.
The application of lazy (or subversive) mathematics in a ritualised fashion leads us to make claims with confidence, only to see those claims be wiped out when we can't replicate them because the math was bad.
But it is also a product of the mediums by which we share the information. Fragments over discourse.
The problem is that the world we inhabit is immensely complex. The knowledge we produce must similarly reflect that complexity.
I have said it before but, knowledge is a peculiar concept. We believe in things and some things that we believe in, we feel so sure about that we call it knowledge.
And so, a form of knowledge production that takes the form of the printed word is excellent to produce discursive thought on a particular topic. But so are forms of rhetoric, now captured most adequately in long-form podcasts. A form of knowledge production that takes the form of entertainment is excellent to produce an appreciate of the moment we are in, from television to TikTok. A form of knowledge production that takes the form of proverbs, or tweeted summaries, is excellent to produce neat heuristics we can use to filter the world in a quick and dirty fashion.
I don't suppose that Postman would disagree in the main. He is often quoted asking 'what is the problem to which this technology is the solution'? So long as we are mindfully applying these filters to our world, we are perhaps at less risk of falling victim to both the Huxleyan and Orwellian vision than if we were to simply view it through one.
The key is to remember Postman's admonishment to avoid the karstic trap of entertainment, something that every form of media promotes as its default mode. Recall that the structure of entertainment media is one which is:
biased toward furnishing images and fragments ... In the absence of continuity and context ... bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole
It is up to us to allow "irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence" its place, but not to allow it to infiltrate into every quiet space.
This article's ideology
Ideology: Since the invention of the telegraph, information has become increasingly atomized, incoherent, and irrelevant. Our media technology encourages entertainment, not discourse. Information 'from nowhere', 'to no one' about which we can do nothing. We don't have to lean in.
Certain technologies bias the way in which we communicate information. The oral tradition gave birth to proverbs and rhetoric. The written tradition gave birth to long-form discursive exposition. The telegraph and the photograph encouraged short-form, context-free information—information 'from nowhere' and 'to no one'. News which is atomized, incoherent, and irrelevant. News that elicits opinions about which you can do nothing because the news has nothing to do with you. The television takes this further still, and encouraged entertainment as information. Information that discourages discourse and encourages fragmentary and emotional 'impressions' the gives a sense of knowledge but in fact provides none. Postman feared that we were 'amusing ourselves' into a cultural death. His critique is no less relevant today. Internet media are a media more biased toward entertainment than ever before. But the internet also makes space for information of different kinds. The proverbs of twitter. The rhetoric of the podcast. The discourse of the blog. It's up to us to seek it out.