Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death — Public discourse in the age of show-business”
This book is a classic: everybody knows it, and everything has been written about it. Let me write some more. Postman’s book caused a lot of public discussion in the mid-eighties, but it is now as relevant as ever, possibly more so. Today, it has almost become an axiom of our society that the answer to the questions raised by our technological advances lie in the application of further technology, some of it undeveloped and possibly speculative as of now. In the field of media, this has led to the hypothesis that the messages we want to communicate, and the media we choose to communicate them, are largely orthogonal issues, which is why we can analyze and quantify media, talk about the ‘bandwidth’ (in bits/second) of, say, a computer animation, or television viewing, or reading a book. Does it not make sense, then, to pick the medium with the highest bandwidth, and to develop media with better bandwidth, shorter access time etc.?
The main point of this book is that this hypothesis is wrong. It focuses on the shift from written text to television as the main mode of cultural communication, and tries to analyze how it affected our culture, how the means of communication influence the content that is communicated. According to Postman, it changed the way people perceive, it changed the way people are even capable of perceiving, it changed the things people think, it changed the cultural conception of what is and what is not, our conception of truth.
Postman argues that each medium has its bias, that it is better at communicating some messages than others, and that it consequently tends to be used for those messages. For television, this bias is the visual, pictures that change and move, as opposed to written text. Since pictures are always of the concrete, the specific, they are not well-suited to presenting the abstract and general. This makes television a bad medium for careful exposition and argument (could you imagine a DVD of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, or even a Tractatus-show in the evening?), much more suited to visual entertainment.
Being exposed to so much of this mode of communication from the earliest childhood days shapes people’s expectations in communication — today, if you cannot make your point in two minutes without boring your audience, you may just as well not make it at all. The attention span of children becomes smaller, it is expected that all communication, and teaching in particular, be entertaining (‘edutainment’). Discussions between politicians are limited to 60-second exchanges (there is an interesting anecdote in the book where Postman contrasts this with the kind of political discussions people had in the 19th century, which often lasted for a day in front of a live audience), and today’s politicians spend more time on their hairdo, makeup, and dress than on being knowledgeable in their country’s affairs.
The book is well worth reading for all its big and little points, and certainly for its main point, that the medium is not neutral to the message. However, one needs to keep in mind that it was written in pre-Internet (or rather pre-Web) time. Today’s technology enables modes of communication that are different from that of television. It would be most interesting to read what Postman has to say about those.