Saturday, September 12, 2009

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This book made a huge impression on me. Published in 1985, it is incredibly thoughtful for the time, and both prescient and useful for today. Stuart McMillen gives us an ironically pictorial version of the introduction here. Postman's general premise is that George Orwell's prediction about Big Brother destroying us was wrong, but that Aldous Huxley's prediction that too much entertainment and leisure would destroy us was right. Specifically, he argues that electronic communication plus television have destroyed our ability to think clearly, or to have rational discourse. His arguments are clear and cogent: the telegraph was the beginning of problems, flooding us with information that we mostly don't need, but feel the need to skim constantly. Then the appearance and dominance of television -- a medium dominated by images, but one where ideas are almost absent, or at least not discussed directly, because that's hard to do with images. Combine that with mass-market forces, and you have a recipe for decay of intelligent discourse.

To my surprise, he is not damning entertainment, really -- entertainment is generally honest about what it is, and entertainment has its place. His real wrath is towards "the news", which pretends to be something serious and important, but in reality is mostly a form of mindless entertainment. He argues that if we mindlessly accept this mindless entertainment as "serious discourse", we are in danger of becoming seriously stupid. This really rang true for me, being a news hater for most of my life.

He only has two suggestions, and has little faith in either: the first is that we educate children about the effect that medium has on message, and on discourse. The second is very surprising: parody! He suggests that if someone makes a genuine entertainment program that shows "the news" for what it is, people might have a chance of seeing the truth -- in other words, The Daily Show!

What the book was unable to address was the Internet, which has simultaneously inundated us with thousands of times more information, and also restored text-based discourse into our daily lives. It's quite a conversation to be had about what effect it has on discourse -- I think we're just starting to understand that now. I'm so very pleased that President Obama has been addressing the very issue of discourse lately -- I hope that people do start to take it more seriously.

Anyway, in short, this short book blew my mind, and has made me rearchitect my thoughts about all manner of things regarding media, thought, information, and "discourse" ... a word I seldom have used in the past, but now find myself using every day.


  1. Nice, I must check this out.

    Have you ever seen Charlie Brooker's Newswipe? It's a very cynical British TV show about the news. One of the best clips is on youtube here: