Amusing Ourselves to Death

What can we learn from the intellectual tradition of media bashing?

Human history is littered with intellectual grumblings about media: Socrates objected to the written word, Thoreau shrugged at the telegraph, and Neil Postman railed against television.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman makes two key arguments:

  1. The media we use to communicate affect the nature of communication.
  2. Television is not—and can not be—a serious medium, and is thus unfit for serious public discourse.

His first argument points to a phenomenon so pervasive that it almost goes unexamined: the medium profoundly affects the message. It pays to understand the strengths and limitations of the media we use. This is a helpful idea to internalize, whether deciding how to communicate with those around us or how to make sense of current affairs.

Postman explains that a medium is more than a technology: “like the mind is to the brain,” a medium is the use to which we employ a technology. All the more puzzling, then, that his analysis largely ignores television’s primary business function: delivering advertisements. Seemingly unconcerned with how television’s business model affects its programming, Postman argues that serious television is an impossibility—”a contradiction in terms.”

“Entertainment,” Postman writes, “is the supra-ideology of all discourse on TV.” This is true for any medium that depends heavily on advertising revenue. It’s disappointing that Postman ignores this.

In his review of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Anatole Broyard wrote that “much of the book is true, but it’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Man’s whole truth, it seems, is that change is relentless, that even the very wise cannot see all ends, and that in all likelihood, the world will keep on spinning.

[ September 2014 ]