Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Amusing Ourselves To Death

"Amusing Ourselves To Death" originally written in 1985 by Neil Postman was given a 20th anniversary reprinting with a forward in part to justify its continued relevance.  In 1985 the computer was established, but in the next twenty years dramatically increased its power and since then there seem to have been new innovations almost on a daily basis.  If anything this book is more relevant in 2018..  Television is very often portrayed as the doom of mankind, although now there are more electronic devices.

The author's basic premise is that enslavement will come not from coercion, but pleasure.  George Orwell  with "1984" vs. Aldous Huxley with "Brave New World."   Orwell portrayed a future of coercion, fear, secret police and the butchering of language as the means to produce compliant slaves.  Huxley suggests enhanced pleasures such as drugs and sex would be more effective.  We in Canada and the United States look at totalitarian states and fear that will be our fate if we are not vigilant.  We are not looking out for being lulled. into complacency.

For thousands of years communication was limited by the speed of humans traveling to and from one another.  Smoke signals, semaphore and pigeons under special circumstances may have been faster, but usually less comprehensive.  When the telegraph and Morse code came around it soon speeded up wire service which made newspapers more up to date with faraway events.  In 1844 Associated Press was founded prompting David Thoreau to comment that "telegraphy made relevance irrelevant."

Reading was a key factor.  Thomas Paine"s Common Sense" sold 100,000 copies in two months.

Neil feels that television in replacing print media has snuck up on us and is weakening our resistance to being controlled.  A lot of people would agree that television is harmful, but Neil goes a little further.  Anything presented on television has to be entertaining and that is its main sin.  Neil thinks entertainment can be useful, but it should not be considered educational.

He gets right into Sesame Street and points out it encourages youngsters to love tv.  He feels that education should be a building process whereas Sesame Street lessons are complete in themselves.  Sequencing continuity is important, but not how Sesame Street works.  It is understandable that by being entertaining television avoids perplexity and the sheer drudgery of boring details.  In defense of television it can bring innovative approaches to difficulties.   Often it inspires youngsters (and even oldsters) to explore some topics in greater depth.  However I do agree that by making education entertaining it makes us a bit lazy

Postman contrasts this with past literate societies.  When we went from an oral culture to a print culture readers were encouraged to study in more depth.  Newspapers covered more issues, while television tends to focus on horse races (ie.election polls) and gaffes.

Religion has become big business on television.  To do so it has understand the need to be entertaining. But Postman thinks something has been lost.

Commercials appeal to the emotions more than reason.  Determine the real emotional desires of consumers and show how your product contributes to that.  Not so much with argument, but with visual images.  Thinking (really dead space) doesn't televise well.

He mentions the famous Lincoln -Douglas debates  in the 1850's that could last several hours requiring a long attention span. With just two men they lasted up to seven hours and many people listened to the entire event while others read accounts.  This required in depth knowledge

Ronald Reagan once said "Politics is like show business."  Walter Lippman had a different slant on that idea when he said , "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means to detect lies."

Neil Postman was in many ways predicting today.  With news that is more entertainment than an open honest discussion someone like Donald Trump becomes possible.  I admit as a bit of political junkie  I find politics full of entertainment.  Of course it is also deadly serious, but often victory falls to the most entertaining.  For more:

Recently watched a debate for the Ontario Provincial Elections.  There were three candidates representing the majority of previous voters.  A fourth candidate, for the Green Party, was rejected because  he didn't get enough support to be included.  Not surprised as they had only allotted 1 1/2 hours and even without commercials that was not enough time to get much more than reflexive responses to predictable questions.  Even debates are entertainment rather than a tool to help make important decisions.

Neil doesn't feel there are much in the way of solutions other than to be aware of what television really offers.  Computers with massive amounts of information serve corporate interests more than the common man.  Bottom line might be we should pay more attention to "Brave New World" than we have to "1984".

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