Friday, December 2, 2016

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death

First published in 1985, this cultural polemic against the pervasively deleterious influence of television on the sober subjects of religion, politics, news, education, history, and science may seem outdated, if not quaint. But, despite the blooming of computer use, TV viewing hasn’t receded much, if at all, in aggregate total hours. It was four hours a day thirty years ago; it is now, I believe, about three-and-a-half hours. Apparently, teh interwebz isn’t replacing TV watching, but other activities such as ... well, reading, for one, I suppose. In this way, Postman, ironically, may seemingly have overshot his thesis, which, because of the inherent nature of its subject, depends on prophetic weight to lend force to its argument. Still, Postman is tuned in enough to realize that television – the medium, not necessarily the intention – emphasizes image over word, speed over exposition, contemporaneity over history, disjunction over relevance, simplicity over perplexity, solutions over ambiguities, and entertainment over edification, while also noting parallels with the later electronic development.

Postman provides a brief overview of how oral communication transformed into written forms, and how those forms were dramatically altered by the Gutenberg revolution. He then gives a detailed account of typographic life in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, emphasizing the seriousness with which readers in America took their transmitting politicians, journalists, religious speakers, and even novelists (imagine Sir Walter Scott as a best-seller today). Abe Lincoln and his opponent(s) would orate over the stump for seven hours at a stretch with no complaints or restlessness from an engaged audience.

The telegraph, in 1840, changed everything. The speed of transmission could now outrun its environment. In Postman’s words, “a man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood’, but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.” It’s here, and in many other examples, that Postman’s analysis creates a comparable shiver of recognition in today’s reader of political commentary, however different the mediums of discourse may appear to be on the surface. Following closely behind telegraphy, the daguerreotype (and then photography) further eroded the reign of typography as the accepted mode of serious transmission. Image over word then took off with further refinements we’re more familiar with.

Postman’s been called a stuffed shirt, a ridiculous idealist, an alarmist, and, probably worst, hyperbolic and irrelevant. But take a few tests based on Postman’s own questions. How many people projecting facile memes (created by someone else, at that), on Facebook and other social media sites, know anything relevant about the candidates they’re mocking or celebrating in elections for premier or president? How is it that TV news is even worse than it was in 1985, what with scrolling bottom-text during the talking-head segments, as if even the half-minute ‘story’ (before the always prevalent “now ... this” mendacious fracture) commands too much attention and thought to sit still for? And how is it that Charlie “I’m interrupting once again even though I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m talking about” Rose is the leading TV interviewer on serious topics? Postman’s all for junk TV because it’s not trying to be anything else – no snob, he. ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Dallas’ are fine, if that’s your bag. Take away a smattering of professional sports and the occasional Hogan’s Heroes rerun, and I could do a toned-down version of Howard Beale, portable box in one hand, raised window sash in the other, ten floors above ground.

And we haven’t even covered subsequent technological developments since Amusing Ourselves to Death’s initial release: multiple recordings for distracted viewers, fast-forwarding at one click, hundreds if not thousands of channels, TV’s continued preference for speed and popularity over relevance by news hour’s highlighting of what’s going viral on youtube or what’s trending on Twitter, the accelerated link between government-media and what is even possible (or not) to air at all (though that would go against the author’s Huxley-over-Orwell argument). Postman just scratched the surface.

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