Amusing ourselves to death

I spent the past week writing about Neil Postman’s perspective on technology. Postman was a media theorist who asked the question of whether we’re controlling technology or whether technology is controlling us. In his most famous book Amusing ourselves to death from 1985 Postman described how we’re living in a world reflected in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World rather than George Orwell’s 1984. With this, Postman meant that human suppression occurred in a burlesque culture through dependence on entertainment and not through state control. He was especially critical of the television medium that could trivialize everything and therefore changed our mode of public discourse.

In the 1800s, America was a print-based culture with a language-centered discourse that was meaningful and serious. Scholars who have studied how reading affects thinking have concluded that it encourages rational thinking, so it’s no coincidence that the Age of Reason coincides with the expanding print culture. You can pinpoint a shift in communication late in the 1800s when advertisements moved from mediating information and making claims in a propositional form to using jingles, slogans, and images. The uncontrolled spread of images through American society happened through what Daniel Boorstin refers to as “the graphic revolution.” The first fifteen US presidents could have walked down the street without being recognized. If instead, you think about Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, an image is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Little exists in the form of words. That is the difference between thinking in a word-centric and an image-centric culture. The widespread use of imagery helped to put the nonsensical news of the day into context by lending a face to the strange places and people.

Postman was especially critical of television news which he thought hurt our sense of the world as a serious place. He questioned why we would follow the newscaster’s suggestion to “join us tomorrow” when we’d just witnessed enough chaos and tragedy for months of sleepless nights. The clue lies in that the news is not to be taken seriously as indicated by the attractive presenters, vivid footage, and exciting music that opens and closes the program. Instead, it’s pure entertainment like everything on TV. Postman did not object to the medium’s broadcasting of junk but he rather thought that the medium was at its best when it presented us with junk. The problem occurred when television had high aspirations and positioned itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. What kind of conversation did it permit? It wasn’t that television was entertaining that was the problem, but that it turned everything into entertainment. We got used to the constant interruptions by advertisements to the point where we no longer got surprised when the newscaster who’d just reported on an inevitable nuclear war declared that he’d be right back after a short message from Burger King.

Advertisements did not only create a juxtaposition between serious and entertaining subjects. In the use of slogans, you saw a decline in rational language. Non-propositional language appealed to our emotions and it was no longer about what was right with the product, but rather, what was wrong with the consumer. Postman referred to slogans as “crazy talk” and meant that they created an irrational semantic environment. He claimed that whether language should be perceived as good or bad depends on its given purpose. If you’re talking science, objective language is good, whereas if you’re talking romance the language should rather be emotional and subjective. If you try to reach a purpose with words that are not designed for this purpose, the language becomes an enemy. TV commercials that appeal to emotions rather than reason are most effective when they’re irrational.

Many of the problems Postman described in the 1980s got worse. You can ask yourself what he would have made of modern social media. What kind of conversation does 240 characters and a picture permit? Or a 60 second video clip? If anything, it’s televisions on steroids. Postman worried that we were moving towards a development where our timeless narrative – the story that contains our politics, religion, philosophy, and science – would get lost. With that, life would also lose its meaning. Postman’s speculations could go a long way towards explaining why we’re living in a world where so many of us are feeling a bit lost. While we’re always entertained, we’re still missing something.

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