We live in a time when our media universe seems more polluted than ever. A menu of endless on-demand entertainment and voices and rich niches that speak to every taste no matter how narrow which once held promise as a democratizing utopia has proved instead a mind-numbing instrument of mass distraction that kills our civic institutions and strips us of our ability to thrive.
Oh. And you thought I was describing our current state of affairs.
Well, yes. But it also characterizes the argument of a 1985 book by NYU media professor Neil Postman — Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business — in which he describes a societal shift that had taken place in a transition from text-based discourse to one that became image-centric, as in from the printed word to television.
Postman writes that as Aldous Huxley foretold in “Brave New World,” the biggest threat to freedom is not authoritarian coercion and control as Orwell suggested (and which Americans are genetically wired to resist), but seduction into idiocy by mass distraction from those things which matter and have substance. When substantive argument gets separated and replaced with aphoristic symbols and images, our ability to discern and distinguish evidence-determined truth is diminished. It is a process, he suggests: the ubiquitous allure of television and its ability to reach millions to substitute substance with pictures atrophies the muscles of rigorous consideration and well-resourced argument.
He warns that overwhelming us with news (information) divorced from the ability to act on said information degrades our will and ultimately our ability to act on news we can do something about. We are lulled into complacency by not acting on what we could do something about on the one hand, and misdirected by outrage or prurient interest into expressing ourselves on things we can’t do anything about, on the other. Thus we can deceive ourselves into believing we’re hyper-well-informed but are tricked into impotence as we less and less engage in the real world around us.
Sound familiar? Everyone says this: Today’s social media flame wars give voice to the dopamine drip of our impotent outrage detached from informed argument and substituting for rational fact-based argument. What they don’t also say? Our swamp of information-for-information’s sake has not only dulled our ability to figure out what really matters, but also to attach important information to the purpose of knowing it. That is, in the absence of believing our words can have real impact, we believe our teams and alliances — our mobs, our us-versus-them — are safer and more important than trying to figure things out on our own and doing something meaningful.
Postman was a crank. He loved to pronounce. And like many who seek to articulate grand cultural narratives he dismissed that which he did not perceive from his fixed observation point. For example, text for him was the ultimate form of articulating an argument, backing it with reason, and defending its premises. To him, video, no matter how visually compelling, was not a substitute for high-level discourse in ideas. He clearly didn’t appreciate the power of ambiguity of images or their raw power to persuade. Or rather, maybe he did and that’s what frightened him.
Nearly forty years later, Amusing Ourselves to Death seems both prescient and naive. Postman writes that our ability to communicate with one another isn’t a straight line. The medium of communication always changes us — first by how we communicate, but ultimately and much more important, by what we choose to say. For anyone trying to understand how today’s public square got so toxic, Postman is required reading.