Friday, October 28, 2011

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman


Pretty much an amazing book.  I realize I am way behind the times, and lots of folks discovered this gem years ago, but better late than never, right?  The only thing that could have made this book any better is if Postman had offered more in the way of solutions to the problem he so skillfully and persuasively describes.
In fact, Postman was so persuasive that I became suspicious that perhaps he was over-arguing his point.  So I looked around a bit to see if the book was universally lauded as an insightful and extremely well-written exposition of the effect of television on modern discourse.  It seems, by and large, that criticisms of this book misconstrue Postman's position as being anti-television on account of the content.  As a result, these criticisms point to the mountains of schlock produced by the book and newspaper industry as evidence that Postman is merely an old fuddy-duddy biased against the new medium of television and blind to the same excesses in his pet medium of print. 

However, as I read the book, Postman's critique is based not on content, but on the medium itself.  He is not critical of the seedy or unedifying content on television--indeed, he says that television is at its least harmful when it is mere "junk" seeking to entertain.  Postman would likely have no problem with Jersey Shore or Real Housewives.  Fun television is not the problem; serious television is. 

Postman argues that the medium of television is not conducive to the analysis of complex political, economical, or moral issues.   And yet, we rely increasingly on television in those very areas--political decisions are made based on commercials and sound bites and networks are always trying to make the nightly news more "entertaining." For Postman, this "serious" television (which is really just more entertainment dressed up as something more) affects our ability to have a discussion about serious topics. And it's not like we have learned to offset television's weaknesses by seeking information from alternate media.  The intrusion of the medium into all areas of thought and life has affected our ability to consult (and our interest in consulting) media--such as books--that do support such discourse.

As a result, many of the criticisms I've read of Postman miss the point.  Postman prefers the written word over television as a medium for serious discussion. The fact that both media contain some "junk" does not change the fact that books and articles are a better platform for serious discussion and examination of serious topics than television.

I have to say, I think he's on to something.  (Plus it validates my interest in "junk" television and my complete lack of interest in "serious" television and news programs.)

I was particularly struck by his discussion of the information-action ratio--that is, that we seek ever increasing amounts of information despite the fact that we cannot act on that information and it does not change the way we live our lives.  So we know more but our knowledge is functionally useless.  As someone who craves knowledge, I confess that the information I obtain is often of little use in the real world; perhaps I should narrow my informational focus or increase my level of action.

At any rate, the book was thought provoking, convicting, disturbing, challenging, and ultimately rather depressing.  I am not entirely sure what I can do to mitigate or undo the effect of television in my own life, though Postman seems to argue that understanding its effects is an excellent first step.  Here's hoping.

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