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Amusing Ourselves to Death

June 7, 2022

As the volume and velocity of modern-day life accelerate, everything becomes about the present. Things nowadays are criticized for not being published yesterday. Silence has been replaced by background noise, as there is no reflection time in the world anymore. Gradually the media has become a parody of itself as the medium in which it, Postman writes, "is presented doesn't care anymore about excellence, clarity or honesty but to just appear as they are, which is another matter altogether. And what that matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising."

Postman's writings hone in on the new innovative information technology of his time in 1985: television. He stresses that: junk television was fine. 'The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, ' he wrote. '60 Minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.' When reading any academic or intellectual piece of writing, it should be very clear that we have been raised in a George Orwell 1984 world after decades of the cold war made communism Big Brother. Understandably, we were taught to be afraid of the bogeyman. Yet it imploded and the Western world congratulated itself on circumventing the Orwellian Nightmare. But, Neil Postman predicted it is Aldous Huxley’s dystopia of A Brave New World, not Orwell’s 1984 that we should fear. In a free-market capitalistic consumer society, people organize themselves around hedonism.

"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."

“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

Amusing Ourselves to Death also works on a modification of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism that “the medium is the message.” Postman altered the idea, writing that the “medium is the metaphor.” In other words, no technology is neutral, and the “form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be."

"Consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content."

The questions we should be asking with any new information technology are paramount, yet never asked while one swims in the sea of the everyday.

• Do they improve or degrade democracy?

• Do they make our leaders more accountable, or less so?

• Is our system more transparent or less so?

• Are the trade-offs worth it?

• Do they illuminate? Or do they fragmentize, de-contextualize, or offer no verification?

It should be pointed out that one should really read the whole book to understand the bigger picture here. To Postman, the main perpetrator was information technology at the time: television. However, his insight, of course, is not limited to this particular technology; rather it is a critique reserved for all mass behavior changing technology that short-circuits the habit of thought. Any more advanced technology that occupies 2 hours and 19 minutes a day of its recipient's attention which comes to mind, perhaps?