Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, published in 1985, delivered a harsh critique of television and its negative effects on culture. Postman's thesis comes down to a basic premise: a civilization based on print communication will foster critical and analytical thinking, while TV trivializes everything.

Postman frequently notes George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's opposing visions of a dystopian society.  In 1984 Orwell imagined oppressive governments banning books and keeping citizens under constant surveillance.  Huxley's Brave New World envisioned a future with a population kept at bay through drugs and endless entertainments.  Why ban books when no one cares to read them?  Although Orwell's often invoked these days, Brave New World seems more prescient. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death goes to great lengths to establish differences between TV and print, whether it be news, political, or religious programming. TV will always favor entertainment above all else.  An example being the presidential debates: they are rarely critiqued in terms of how the candidate argues their points, but rather on who scores the most zingers or flubs the most lines. Entertaining content always trumps thought provoking content.

In the past 30 years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was written TV has changed and yet stayed the same. Critics often speak of a new "Golden Age" of television when writing about cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  But dramas have always occupied a high place in television and while they are getting more sophisticated - television remains mostly junk! From reality TV to Cable News, there's enough mindless babble to keep anyone hypnotized for hours.

Postman offered a few solutions to offsetting television, but the book is mostly a lamentation. There's a quiet eloquence to it. One can see the influence of Postman's thesis in writings to come later, David Foster Wallace especially comes to mind.  The literature of the future will no doubt confront and attempt to make sense of the post-print world Postman predicted.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in books. I teach freshman composition and I can say students do place some value on literature, but it's not a major part of their lives.  Walk around any college campus and you will rarely see undergrads immersed in On the Road or The Bell Jar. More likely they are in the middle of a Netflix binge

The generation born after 1995 (anyone under 21) are totally at ease with digital technology and they are building their own reality around it. Whatever happens, it will be a brave new world.  

People have mused upon the effects of technology since the beginning of civilization, a clip from The Magnificent Ambersons reveals how silly and profound these discussions can get: something is always gained and lost.

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