I just finished reading through Neil Postman’s ground-breaking screed against the dangers posed by television on our culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1984. Much of it still rings true today, perhaps even more true, as the dangers he foretells 23 years ago seem self-evident and pervasive today.
In light of Postman’s book, I’ve been thinking about the advances in internet development over the past few years, particularly the growth of social networking technologies. Are we still amusing ourselves to death?
For those who have not read it, Neil Postman argues that the switch from print to television as the primary form of public discourse is having a profound impact on society, largely to its detriment. He characterizes it as a shift toward a medium whose primary value is to entertain, not enlighten. The dominance of television has particularly negative impacts on news and journalism, politics, and education. He posits that TV is making us less informed, less educated, more passive and less politically engaged. Postman closes this slim volume with the challenge "Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?"
Neil Postman passed away in 2003. So we don’t know what he would make of this much "richer," denser and twitterific multi-media environment. His son Andrew wrote last year about the enduring legacy of his father’s work, noting that:
…my father asked such good questions that
they can be asked of non-television things, of all sorts of
transforming developments and events that have happened since 1985, and
since his death, and of things still unformed, for generations to come…
His questions can be asked about all technologies and media.
So how does Postman’s dire warning map onto the current state of information and networking technology?
To consider this, I want to examine what Postman saw as the losses to our culture from the incursion of television in our lives, and see if new media mitigate or share those same deficiencies.
"Now… This" : News as Drama
Postman takes strong exception to how television news truncates how we receive news and information into very small portions of video, resulting in the rapid "consumption" of news without any of the analysis, reflection, argumentation or debate.
The primary source of news for most Americans is still television. Newsprint has been in steady decline for the past 20 years. Radio has branched out into Satellite, HD and webcast models.
And then came the web. Social networking technology has exponententially expanded the population of the news "providers" and changed the audience from passive recipients to active responders and critics. From online versions of print and television news media, to internet-only news sites, to the blogosphere, people are no longer content to just watch an attractive cast of newscasters tell them what the news is, they want to create it and critique it themselves.
I think Postman would take heart in this development and see it as a win for rationality and public discourse.
Politics as Image over Substance
Postman argues that television has made politics into a game in which the winner is not the one with the superior policies but the most telegenic presence. He wrote in the era of Reagan, who is still the acknowledged master of style over substance. The defining feature of modern politics he posits is the television commercial: a pre-packaged set of appealing images and slogans that don’t argue or inform as much as entertain with good feelings and emotive hooks.
Not much has changed since Postman wrote about Reagan. Actors and entertainers have become almost commonplace in politics, from Sonny Bono to Arnold Schwartzenegger.
But this election we may be witnessing some misfires in the political machinery as social networking threatens to open up the political process to millions more active voters who want to make their voices heard. Across the political spectrum, activists are using YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, MeetUp, Second Life, and Twitter to engage with other voters and try and influence their votes. Political campaigners will continue to try and maintain their command-and-control, top-down structures, spinmeisters will try and control the message. But with a million folks armed with cameraphones, podcasts, and Garage Band, you can’t control the signal.
Again, I think Postman would welcome the inevitable chaos.
Education as Entertainment
His most damning section is how television has altered how people learn. Postman defines what he sees as the central educational motifs taught by television: it requires no slow accumulation of knowledge over time, it does not tax the viewer, and it requires no exposition. In his nightmare vision, "Sesame Street" has taken over the academy.
Well, twenty years later, kids are still learning the way they have always learned: a teacher lectures, textbook readings are assigned, written work is submitted. Students might try and Google answers, and assignments might include websites for further reference, but the basic structure of education has not been dramatically altered to accommodate television.
Meanwhile, digital technologies are changing the nature of what the "classroom" is. The US Department of Defense is launching a new initiative to create a virtual game development lab to test how computer games can be used to teach military skills. Harvard Law School is conducting virtual courses in Second Life. The non-profit Global Kids is helping teenagers create machinima public service announcements about different public policy issues. Far from passively receiving amusing video content, students are being challenged to learn in new ways, through interacting with digital media and engaging with each other in online spaces.
All-in-all, Neil Postman tells a cautionary tale of what will happen if the populace becomes captive to a unidimensional, hyper-consolidated, broadcast model of information delivery. It is still a vital message that deserves to be retold to succeeding generations. But I find more cause for optimism now than I think I would if I were reading this book 20 years ago.
We certainly are not out of the woods yet. But I think more than ever people are active creators of art, journalism, scholarly inquiry, and political speech. We won’t be destroying our televisions anytime soon. But we are absorbing them into a wider web of connections and media that we create.