Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 3/08/2015

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley marked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
The media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture's intellectual and social preoccupations. It is recreated by every new medium of communication—from painting to the alphabet to television. Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.
"Is the Iliad possible, when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?" ~ Karl Marx
What people watch, and like to watch, are millions of moving pictures, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate these requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business. Television has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television, i.e takes the form of entertainment. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.
Walter Lippmann, wrote in 1920: "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies."
The published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. To these people, reading was both their connection to and their model of the world. The printed page revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture. It is also the difference between living in a culture that provides little opportunity for leisure, and one that provides much, which can be invested in reading and spending time thinking.
"More than any other device, the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local; . . . print made a greater impression than actual events. . . . To exist was to exist in print: the rest of the world tended gradually to become more shadowy. Learning became book-learning." ~ Lewis Mumford
As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it. Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzsche remarked.
I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth." The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. 
One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true. But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play. There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor and the measure of all discourse.
Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them.
The printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public knowledge. Public figures were known largely by their written words, for example, not by their looks or even their oratory. It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the street. To think about those men was to think about what they had written, to judge them by their public positions, their arguments, their knowledge as codified in the printed word. But now, you cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content. In a world of television and other visual media, "political knowledge" means having pictures in your head more than having words. Almost certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhanced by the cosmetician's art have no future in politics. Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.
At the first debate between Douglas and Lincoln in Ottowa, Douglas responded to lengthy applause with a remarkable and revealing statement. "My friends," he said, "silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms." 
How television stages the world becomes the model for how the people stage it. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The way in which the photograph records experience is also different from the way of language. Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. Television is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation. Each "headline" stood alone as its own context. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see.
The idea, "is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required . . . to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time." He goes on to say that the assumptions controlling a news show are "that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism."
When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, "Let me think about that" or "I don't know" or "What do you mean when you say . . . ?" or "From what sources does your information come?" This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Terence Moran, lands on the target in saying that with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective.
"Knowing" the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. In fact, it is quite obvious that TV news has no intention of suggesting that any story has any implications, for that would require viewers to continue to think about it when it is done and therefore obstruct their attending to the next story that waits panting in the wings. Theirs was a "language" that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems. Whereas in a classroom, one may ask a teacher questions, one can ask nothing of a television screen. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with "giving off" impressions, which is what television does best. Television's strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings.
Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.
In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.
Television made information into a commodity, a "thing" that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning, it made relevance irrelevant. Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This suggests that the new technologies had turned the age-old problem of information on its head: Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. This is called disinformation, which means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." ~ Henry David Thoreau
For example, in the 1890's advertisers adopted the technique of using slogans. At about the same time, jingles started to be used. Now almost all television programs are embedded in music. But what has music to do with the news? It is there for the same reason music is used in the theater and films to tell the audience what emotions are to be called forth and to create a mood for entertainment. Many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings and other disasters. Viewers would be quite disconcerted by any show of concern or terror on the part of newscasters. The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal.
The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. 
Images of movie stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country— these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer. And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research. This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.
Bernard Shaw's remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. "It must be beautiful, if you cannot read".
Moreover, changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people's minds or changes in their cognitive capacities. Stauffer et al. found in studying students' responses to a news program transmitted via television, radio and print, that print significantly increased correct responses to questions regarding the names of people and numbers contained in the material. Stern reported that 51 percent of viewers could not recall a single item of news a few minutes after viewing a news program on television.
Robert MacNeil's observes that "Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World."

Comments (1)

  1. This is an awesome piece of analysis. Why didn't I discover this blog ealier?

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