Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman

It would not be an overstatement to say that this book, along with Postman’s other book, Technopoly, completely changed many things about how I saw the world when I first read them at Stanford. This book was an incredible insight then, in 1994, ten years after it was written, and I have to say that in 2010, it reads like a completely current account of what’s happening in our public lives today. (Owing to the time, it focuses on how television changes our culture; obviously you have to replace that with the Web, but it is amazingly modern in its insight.)

It’s got to be one of the 5 most influential books that I’ve ever read, and it’s getting better and better with age. As such, I’m going to quote here at some length, but if you haven’t read it, you should go get it, and read at least the beginning and end, as soon as you can.

Here’s the basic premise of the book:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

And this:

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing’s output of junk.

And this, the most important point: “My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”

And this:

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each “headline” stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

And the last thing I’ll leave you with is this short idea: “…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.”

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I really hope more people will read it and internalize what’s happening to our culture and discourse.

Of course, it’ll make a crappy movie, so maybe I’m hoping for too much.

3 comments

  1. Sounds like a great read. I’ll put it on my xmas kindle list. Thanks!

  2. mentions my two favorite books off all time. sites like twitter and facebook take us one step closer to a brave new world by chopping up our entertainment into smaller and smaller sizes, making everyone think less.

  3. I’m not sure the Web, Twitter, etc. are quite in the same league as film and TV. The former at least have (genuine) interaction in their favour. I agree that Postman is as relevant as ever. http://wp.me/polLM-3L