I have just finished reading Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman.

I think author Neil Postman has a lot of valuable things to say and reflect on. Several years ago I read his book Technopoly, which, along with several other books and articles I read at the time, led me to present a session at the 2001 TCEA convention entitled, “Remember the Luddites: Asking Critical Questions about Educational Technology.” Technopoly was published in 1993, but now I have gone back to Postman’s 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It seems a bit dated, with the advent of the Internet and all the changes which have come as a result, but I found the book to be none-the-less quite relevant and worthwhile. His overall theme of how our society (esp in the US) is tending to become more and more focused on entertainment via multimedia has many implications not only in an educational arena, but also for everyday life– in the way we set our priorities, and in the final analysis– the ways we choose (hopefully intentionally) to spend our limited heartbeats. Those small choices day to day add up to have a considerably dramatic cumulative effect. And his point is well taken about our typical, cultural LACK of intentionality when it comes to our consumption of multimedia content– esp. television programming.

In the May 2004 edition of Wired magazine, an article entitled “Watch This Way” documents a conversation between various moguls and pundits of our ever-growing entertainment industry. I found Yair Landau of Sony Picture’s comment that “There are three basic human entertainment experiences that go back to the cave: storytelling, game-playing, and music” to be compelling. Author William Gibson added to this list of basic entertainment experiences “being part of the tribe.” I have been giving a fair amount of thought lately to the value and opportunities posed by digital storytelling authoring tools in the early 21st Century. Most of my thinking along these lines is very optimistic and energetic, but it is good to temper this enthusiasm with some sober analysis like Postman’s. I wouldn’t call this blog entry a book-review per se– I more think of it as a few reflections about some key points Postman makes in the book that I would like to remember and others may find worthwhile as well. As Landau pointed out, the desire to seek entertainment through storytelling and music is most likely universal. These are drives which transcend time and space. I am reminded of the futurists in the early part of the twentieth century (I think) who predicted that technology would lead to vast amounts of leisure time for people: with washing machines, dishwashers, and speedy cooking devices, people would have loads of free time to pursue other activities which were unthinkable in earlier times. I have laughed at that seemingly ridiculous prediction in the past, because today in the first decade of the twenty-first century, we seem to generally be harried, stressed, busy people who do not have enough time in the day for all the activities and demands which fill our schedules and minds. Yet despite all this busyness, we are clearly still finding large amounts of time to spend watching TV and entertaining ourselves in other ways. According to the Wired article previously cited, more and more Americans are watching LESS television today, but spending more time playing electronic games and surfing the Internet. That was not a trendline predicted by Postman in 1984. But we shouldn’t be too hard on him for that oversight, Bill Gates apparently didn’t see the Internet coming either. Despite this fact, Postman’s analysis about our apparent intrinsic drive to seek entertainment via multimedia is still a cogent thesis for 21st century netizens.

Thesis

Postman’s clearly articulated thesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death is “to make the epistemology of television visible again” (p. 80.) According to Webster’s, epistemology is “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.” Partly derived from the Greek word epistanai meaning “to understand,” I would paraphrase this thesis as a desire to help average people think critically about the content of the multimedia messages they/we view and consume each day, and become more intentional about the choices they/we make about those messages on a regular basis.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is actually a paraphrased quote from Terence Moran’s 1984 article “Politics 1984: That’s Entertainment.” Postman writes, “In the absence of continuity and context…’bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole'” (p. 137.) That statement is even more true now in 2004 than it was twenty years ago. If the information age has given us anything, it is a more dizzying array of information and information sources with which we must contend daily. How much sense or continuity we are able to make out of this morass of data and opinions depends on many factors, but I think the ability to synthesize and understand is a fundamental one that is needed by many and not just a few. One could even contend this is a vital literacy skill of our modern age. It may be a perennial literacy skill, but one which seems more difficult and elusive to master given the glut of information all around us.

One of the recurring thoughts I had while reading Amusing Ourselves to Death was a feeling approaching guilt, for watching the evening news or reading up on current world events. Since I have had a web-enabled Palm handheld device, I have grown fond of frequenting the text-only/low graphics version of the BBC’s website to read my news. As Postman points out, watching or reading news reports that focus on disconnected, distant events is fundamentally an entertainment activity. This made me think of my late grandmother, who lived almost every waking moment of her life (at least the last 10-15 years) with CNN turned on every minute of the day. CNN was her life and it was her basic means of entertainment. The same observation could likely be made fairly of others who are avid news readers and watchers. As a social studies teacher, I think it is important for students and citizens in general to keep abreast of current events and be knowledgeable / conversant about the important issues of the day. On the other hand, I do see Postman’s point that, starting with the telegraph, American society has become enraptured with “the breaking news story” which, in the final analysis, usually turns out to be an irrelevant distraction that is soon forgotten. In essence, many of us waste many precious heartbeats every day reading the news and being entertained via current events, when we possibly could spend those heartbeats on activities of more enduring benefit and greater value.

Postman passionately and convincingly argues that “technology is ideology,” and it is NOT value neutral (p. 157.) Technology is “not always a friend to culture,” and we had better wake up to the dramatic changes being wrought upon our society and our basic means of discourse– because we ain’t in Kansas any more. Fundamental shifts in our paradigms of discourse were brought about by the introduction of a written alphabet, again with the printing press and movable type– and most recently with the “speed-of-light transmission of images.” The Internet revolution and the World Wide Web represents a continuation of this third transformative change, I think, although it is qualitatively different in many ways. Postman contends that television definitionally does not promote rational discourse: instead, it panders to emotion, impactful visual imagery, and woefully simplistic/inadequate sound bytes. The fact that you are reading this web blog which I have published on my own rented server space IS qualitatively different from the act of passively watching a television program– it is an activity which is more of a throwback to our previous typographic age. The values implicit in the Internet revolution ARE different than those in an era dominated by broadcast television. Yet Postman’s point remains valid: values ARE intrinsically tied to a particular technology, and we should not kid ourselves that technology can possibly be value neutral.

Assumptions of Television

Postman thoughtfully points out that in our television-dominated culture, several critically important but likely oft-overlooked assumptions are implicit, especially when we consider commercials in the Age of Show Business:

1- All problems are solvalbe.
2- All problems are solvable fast.
3- All problems can be solved “through the interventions of technology, techniques, and chemistry (p. 130.)
4- “Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones” (p. 131.)
5- “Drama is to be preferred over exposition” (p. 131.)
6- Generally everyone should seek a solution you can buy rather than confront a complex problem fraught with uncertainty and more questions than answers.

These lessons of modern consumer society are not really novel or earth-shattering. I am reminded of the late Stephen Glenn’s lectures on our culture as it related to the increasing trends of self-destructive behaviors among US adolescents. Our media teaches everyone to not delay gratification: if it feels good do it now, and that if you have a problem, self-medication of some form can almost certainly provide the answer.

Television (at least commercialized TV, which thankfully does not include our local PBS programming) seems to intrinsically strive to foster discontent in the mind of the viewer. Where are the ads for Biblical values, like contentment with what you havee, or taking joy in the blessings of life even in situations of great suffering or distress? They don’t exist, even on the large number of “Christian” television channels! What we are bombarded with continually is a message that you should not be happy, and you are not happy, because you need to purchase products X, Y, and Z. This is an empty and blantantly misleading message. Products and things will never bring lasting happiness. Yet that is a pervasive message within our global culture that seems almost inescapable. (Except maybe on PBS.)

One of Postman’s key observations of television is very straightforward and should be obvioius, but its implications are far-reaching. He writes, “The single most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called ‘television‘” (p. 92.) [italics in original] He continues, “It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest…..” In other words, in a culture dominated by television, discourse is inherently limited. It definitionally cannot be sophisticated and complex. This leads into what I will probably end with as a final observation, regarding our assumptions of rational action.

Assumptions of Rational Action

Assumptions of rationality are very important in our everyday society, not just to philosophers. Our entire economic system, which as Postman points out was a byproduct of the Enlightenment (p. 127,) is based on the idea that in a marketplace rational actors will choose the best goods using their powers of free agency and a process of rational decisionmaking.

The transitive conclusion to the preceeding discussion is this:

A culture dominated by television where decisions are influenced more by emotion (advertising) than reason + an economic marketplace = an environment where people are largely manipulated and used to further the financial ends of the media authors / financiers

This is not a pretty picture. Is it an exaggeration or a misinterpretation? Those are questions worthy of more discussion and investigation, I think.

As human beings, we are free agents. People can talk about the “illusion” of free will / free agency all they want, but my philosophic studies as well as the practical, real-world experiences of my own life have taught me that God has (thankfully) blessed me with this wonderful gift: the power to choose.

Postman provides a lot of food for thought in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I find myself wondering what he is up to now in 2004, and what he may be writing about our society still bent on seeking entertainment, but perhaps (in some sectors) not as wholly focused on and ruled by the broadcast media. (Postscript: a quick google search reveals that Postman passed away in Oct 2003…. but he lives on via his insightful writings….)

Conclusions

Postman ends his book by placing some high expectations on our school teachers and educational system. If his goal of making the epistemology of television (and I would more broadly generalize this to be multimedia and digital content in all forms) visible again, he concludes that it is up to teachers to make this happen.

Are we talking about this need and goal in our Colleges of Education and other teacher-education programs? Are we helping in-service teachers as well as students acquire media literacy so they can speak and act intelligently about the epistemology of digital media? If so, I have not seen a lot of the evidence.

I do find digital storytelling to be compelling. But I also find web blogging compelling. The ability to publish my ideas for a global audience from my little laptop, wirelessly connected to the Internet from my home in Lubbock, Texas, is nothing short of amazing, It is magic. It is hocus pocus. It is a paradigm shift that would certainly thrill even Thomas Kuhn or Martin Luther. And I think in those qualitative differences between web blogging and watching network TV, we CAN find reason for optimism in our modern era. For we do not live only in “The Age of Show Business.” We also live in the “Age of My Business,” when anyone can be a global author and publisher– not just of textual content like this blog, but also of multimedia content– of digital stories.

These are topics worthy of greater exploration and reflection. And that is why I have written this blog entry! Thanks for reading. 🙂

Now go turn off the television and read a good book!

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