In 1985, Neil Postman published, to immediate critical acclaim, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For some reason, I did not read it at the time, but it has endured if not grown in value — so say all my friends in cyberspace (about which more later) — so I read it Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share some highlights with you, or if I shared all my highlights (though that is technically easier to do), because phrases I found arresting in context might well be boring in isolation. So here goes.
First, Postman is at great pains to distance himself from the Luddites. He acknowledges major communicative changes in the past, with some of what was lost and gained in each, before exploring how television is toxically different.
- Regarding the Commandment against idols, “The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.”
- “Although one would not know it from consulting various recent proposals on how to mend the educational system, this point — that reading books and watching television differ entirely in what they imply about learning — is the primary educational issue in America today. America is, in fact, the leading case in point of what may be thought of as the third great crisis of Western education. The first occurred in the fifth century BC, when Athens underwent change from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture. To understand what this meant, we must read Plato. The second occurred in the 16th century when Europe underwent a radical transformation as a result of the printing press. To understand what this meant, we must read John Locke. The third is happening now, in America, as a result of electronic revolution, particularly the invention of television. To understand what this means, we must read Marshall McLuhan.”
- “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying that the medium is the message. His aphorism, however, is in need of amendment because, as it stands, it may lead one to confuse a message with a metaphor. A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols to which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.”
- “It is my intention in this book to show 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.”
- “[W]e do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities, but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.”
There were waystations en route to television land, telegraphy featuring prominently (perhaps as synecdoche), for its obliteration of distance:
- “Telegraphy … destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that ‘We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.… We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the end of the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.’ … Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscrossing the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods — much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough — became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day.'”
Now that we’re in television land, Postman also is insistent about not floating conspiracy theories about commies or lizard people deliberately using TV to make us stupid. For instance:
- “The single most important fact about television is that people watch it. Which is why it is called “television.” And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures — millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the contact of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.”
- “What is happening here is the television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. This information does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I did not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans have a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say this when the news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.”
It is a commonplace in Evangelical Protestantism that mediums (I know the plural is properly “media,” but that has accumulated distracting connotations) are neutral. Christianity being something I care about very much, Postman’s Chapter Shuffle off to Bethlehem really hit me:
Though it may be unAmerican to say it, not everything is televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was into something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have assumed that what had formally been done at a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of people to whom the television gives them access.
“Television,“ Billy Graham has written, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my primetime specials is now carried by nearly 300 stations across the US and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime.“ To this, Pat Robertson adds: “To say that the church shouldn’t be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change.… It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America.“
This is gross technological naïveté. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the messages experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that it’s social and psychological meaning is different as well.
I believe that I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.
I’ve long not been a fan of televangelists, but I hadn’t thought it through as Postman did. I can’t even say “Aha! He put my intuition into words!”, as I so often feel, because I tacitly bought the idea that mediums are neutral. Maybe the single most important lesson of this book, for me if not for everyone, is that “neutral medium” is rubbish.
And I should have known better all along. Every sick-Sunday or Covidtide streamed Divine Liturgy screamed at me “I am inadequate!” Each was inadequate as “television” and as Christian worship. Every medium shapes all messages it mediates.
To a slightly lesser extent, I care about education. Postman sets forth three commandments of televised education, which I distill:
The three Commandments that form the philosophy of the education which television offers:
– Thou shalt have no prerequisites.
– Thou shalt induce no perplexity.
– Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.
Postman’s concluding chapter not only brings back a lot of stuff for a curtain call, but summarizes colorfully:
An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist the prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Göethe and Jefferson. But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusement. To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?
What I suggest here is a solution is what all does Huxley suggested as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H.G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
Now for a bit of critique.
Television is still with us, but with a fourth broadcast network (Fox, which I recall being announced on NPR in April 1988 — recalled because (a) I was driving a rented Camry around San Francisco and down Highway 1, and (b) I thought it was a stupid idea for which Rupert Murdoch would pay dearly) and countless cable offerings. I don’t think this changes anything. The news is as stupid or stupider than ever, and has us broken into tribes to boot. So much for a peaceful Huxleyan world — and for my ability to spot a good money-making idea when I see it.
But we also can control television, which means relying on it for entertainment — which is all it’s good for — and nothing else. We can only do it at the family level, though, which means we still swim in polluted waters when we step out into the work-world.
Computers, however, Postman underestimated — perhaps because he did not foresee the “technology” of ARPANET expanding to the public and becoming virtually its own “medium.” I am aware of its potential for harm, pornography having become ubiquitous, for instance (and the emergence of “ethically-source porn” and the happy “sex workers” to replace unhappy, exploited “prostitutes”, both to make sensitive wankers feel better about their vice), but I dare say, from personal experience and experiment, that it is concurrently a great power for good. I have Anglophone “friends” around the world as a result, for instance.
Dare I say that the world awaits a treatment of the internet equal in stature to Postman’s treatment of television? Or perhaps it’s here and I just haven’t read it. There are definitely efforts being made to write it.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.
W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening, November 1937
The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
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