Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman

by Neil Postman

In this book Neil Postman helps to expound the meaning of the expression, "the medium is the message," or, as he rephrases, "the medium is the metaphor". While I have long pondered the inherent meaning behind the forms of media we use to communicate and how those mediums affect our communication, Postman has brought much needed clarity and insight to my own musings on this subject.

Anyone who is an avid reader and movie goer should know that some elements that work well in writing do not always work well in a motion picture. In my own experience I have also noticed the limitations of drama and preaching as I seek to communicate the gospel during my yo-yo shows.

Every medium has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to communication. A sermon can be useful for thorough examination of a text or detailed argumentation (though they are rarely used for this anymore). A skit cannot. On the other hand, a well done dramatization can implement metaphor and story with a terseness and power that words alone can rarely match.

Postman takes this truth as the foundation for his basic argument and builds upon it. Every form of communication has a bent towards a certain set of ideas that are convenient for that medium to express. The ideas that are easiest to express will become the most important ideas for a culture. This argument becomes clearest in his discussion of the news media. Before the advent of the telegraph information could only travel as fast as an individual could carry it. This meant that public discourse in news papers tended to be more local while major "world" events could be more thoroughly analyzed. This sounds backwards to us because we tend to think that more information would lead to better analysis, but the opposite is the case. Today we are bombarded by so much "news" information that has little or nothing to do with us at all that we have no time to thoughtfully consider the great events of our time. Consider this past election. Many of the best and most important things that were said never got any coverage or analysis at all because they could not be summarized in a 45 second clip in the evening news. In a media environment that favors short, fast, fresh, we have no time to think about what is happening, and just barely enough time to react so we can answer a question in a pole to make more news to respond to. Our debates today are not about polices but about looking pretty and not looking stupid. In contrast Postman describes a debate between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858. "Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply." And this was a short debate. How much time do we give our politicians to tell us their answers to the current world crises? Two minutes, maybe three. Unlike the audiences in 1858 we are not ready to handle the real issues and so we do a little dance instead until someone misses a step.

Postman argues that television has done this to us. It is a medium that favors fast, brief, exciting communication, while shunning long thorough analysis. Consequently the fast and fresh information has become all that is important to us while we have lost our ability to think critically. Have you tried having a political conversation with someone you disagree with lately? How often does it resort to name calling and baseless arguments about associations? Have you ever had a thoughtful discussion about a real issue. If you have you are one of the lucky ones.

Postman also delves into the effect of television on education. Sesame Street was originally an experiment to see if education can be entertaining. They discovered that indeed it can. What they failed to see is that Sesame Street also taught us that education should be entertaining. Unfortunately entertainment can only handle certain kinds of discourse and learning so we end up crippling ourselves instead of simply making learning more fun. Anything that cannot be learned through entertainment is pushed to the side while we count to 10 in Spanish.

The insights of this book, which I have only pointed out a few, are profound and its implications vast. How much more does this apply to the internet than televison (the book was written in 1985). I will have to get his work "Informing ourselves to death" to find out. This book has certainly sparked a curiosity in me concerning this line of discussion. I would like to pursue it further.

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  • “we do a little dance instead until someone misses a step.” I liked this line. I definitely felt like this watching the last few debates of the past election. Actually, my confession is that I would usually become fed up with the back and forth banter about 15 minutes in and would reserve the remainder of my week’s political attention to the SNL parody of the debate, which, much like Sesame Street, did a very fine job of presenting facts in an entertaining way.

    An individual I know has a tendency to spout political opinions and criticism when in group and I always felt that they must do nothing else but study political news when alone, until one day I caught an excerpt of the Daily Show and realized they were just regurgitating news blips. Watching the Daily Show “rant” is a lot of fun, but it’s also difficult because I find that many of the topics and quotes that are covered in it are either good but given bad presentation in the show or good but taken out of context.

    It’s irritating knowing that many take these nicely packed rants (which take place everywhere and on both sides of the political spectrum, I just used the Daily Show as one example), and regurgitate them in arguments and insert them, without refine, into their own opinion bases.

    The book is correct in that we’re on information overload. It would take me reading and studying every free moment to get even a piece of a valid fact or point about many political issues. I can choose to be swayed and get fired up over short rants, but they have little to do with real facts and much to do with frill (something I know you don’t go for).

  • I feel like it is inevitable that in the current climate SNL and the Daily Show would come up in this discussion. Your comment is all the more apropos because in Postman’s conclusion he argues that satire is the only way to teach people about the negative effects TV is having on public discourse. The Daily Show is especially good at making fun of the media and its 24 hour news cycle that is forced to fill its time with non-news and analysis by people who have no business being on TV. I feel like these shows, despite the fact that they distort the truth in the same ways as the rest of the media, have begun to teach us how stupid we have all become and how ridiculous our entertainment news system truly is.
    (For more on the news as entertainment check out Konet’s post on the subject.)

  • Amira

    I think Steve said it right. I would say I was well informed by todays standards, 3 weekly magazines from 3 viewpoints and 2 newsources also from different viewpoints, but do I really understand what is going on? Do I understanad the ins and outs or am I just regurgitating opinions and other peoples ideas? I suspect most everyone has next to no idea of the complexity of the issues. There is too much involved and it would take just too much time. The scary thought is, do the politicians really take the time to find out the ramifications of their decisions or are we really being ruled by one or two in the know people who understand how to manipulate the rest, or worse still do any of them understand??
    Great to see you last week…

  • Amira

    On the topic of Sesame St and the like, I read a book, which when I get it back I will reference for you, which showed that that type of TV, ie quick 2 second bites of info with high visual impact, actually change your brain, hence the huge increase in ADD etc.
    Fascinating research.

  • Amira,
    I have heard of this effect but I have never read anything about it. I will be looking forward to your book.
    When I try to think about how much politicians understand what they are doing I can’t help but conclude that most things are done for the sake of appearance. Good policies get sabotaged by one party so the other party will not get the credit, only to be picked up again by the first when they are in power. Given the complexity of the issues and the seemingly obvious fact that politicians are always trying to manipulate us to stay in power, I can only conclude that even if politicians do understand what they are doing they will still only act based on what the public will perceive to be a good or bad decision. This usually limits them to only making decisions that look good in the immediate future while showing no concern for the long term. Long term thinkers are praised by history but swiftly booted out of office. If it can’t be discussed and solved in 30 minutes (minus 8 minutes of commercial breaks, of course) we don’t want to hear about it. And you better give us a tax credit in the meantime.

  • Adam, for the same reasons you state above, I fear that the country will only stand behind Obama for so long. Our present problems and situation will take good policies and sound leadership and management to solve, but I think the most abundant ingredient needed in the mix labeled “solution” is time. I fear that the country, though we may be learning to consume less fuel (at the moment) and be more wise with our money and resources, has not yet learned to allow time for healing. The progressive anti-religious side of humanity loves to poke fun at our hope and faith in God, but at the end of the day I think they just have a different messiah (which changes every month).

  • Amira

    The book is by Jane Healey called ” Endangered Minds, why children don’t think and what we can do about it” Amazon , of course , has it.
    As to the politicians, maybe the best we can hope for are short term decisions, for the very reasons outlined, which do the least harm. I suspect the fairly centrist team coming in in Jan will be quite good at that. Obviously combined with the fact that the country is broke, we may be in for a little common sense.