Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Neil Postman

Book cover

I feel like I’ve been writing this a lot lately, but this is also an extraordinary book. I read it as part of a micro book-club (discussed with two friends on separate occasions), which I highly recommend as a forum for reading and discussion.

Neil Postman is a curmudgeon. Neil Postman hates TV and thinks it has dumbed down American civil discourse. It’s probably not surprising that I agree with him for the most part. Postman attempts to temper his claims by saying that he is merely arguing for the position that TV has changed the nature of discourse (even written discourse), but not necessarily that it has changed it for the worse. I find this a little bit disingenuous since he obviously believes the stronger claim, and since I believe the book would not hold that much interest if only the weaker claim were really at stake.

One of my book club friends argued strongly against one of Postman’s key contentions: that civil discourse used to be more intelligent, rational, and educated before the advent of television. Postman adduces a fair amount of anecdotal evidence around this point, such as the willingness of the public in pre-war years to listen to long speeches by politicians, but at the end of the day, all he has is anecdote. It is fairly easy to imagine that he is taking a selective view (intentionally or not), or that the discourse changed for reasons other than the medium of television itself (for example, because it began to encompass a public broader than a tiny elite). I’m willing to concede my friend’s point, and I don’t think it matters that much to the book. It’s enough to characterize the way things are today, and argue why it is problematic.

Postman has a feel for the mot juste, but more than that, many parts of this book struck me as almost unbelievably prescient for something written in 1985, foreseeing may trends that are relevant in the age of social media and the tweeter in chief. Here is an example:

“A central thesis of computer technology–that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data–will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

And:

“All Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”

Here is another good one, on the obsolescence of censorship:

“Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment–and cares.”

His ideas are very apropos when considering Trump. For example, he talks about how television culture weakens the concept of a lie. It centers around juxtaposition of totally unrelated items (programs and commercials, or different programs), and thereby weakens our sense that things must follow logically and be consistent over time. Credibility, he says, becomes a matter not of consistency with past record, but rather, an impression created in the moment. As advertising moved from arguing that products are valuable to making consumers feel valuable, he says, so does the politician move to offer himself as an idealized image of the audience.

He has relatively few solutions on offer, befitting his curmudgeonly character. The only quasi-solutions he offers he characterizes as either “nonsense” or “desperate”. The desperate answer is for schools to educate us in how to consume information. The nonsense answer is more interesting to me. He says that one might create TV programs that self-parodically demonstrate how TV ought to be viewed, citing SNL and Monty Python as spiritual inspirations. When I read this I immediately thought of the Colbert Report–perhaps the fulfillment of Postman’s nonsense idea?

One very interesting question to ponder when reading Postman is what implications his ideas have for the age of the internet and social media. There are many similarities with television culture, but some differences too. Postman’s book shares more than a family resemblance with noted curmudgeon Neal Stephenson’s essay “In The Beginning Was The Command Line”, about the decline of standards in computer culture. If I were to mount a serious argument against Postman, it would be something like the following. He is right about the current nature of discourse (and probably about its evolution over time), but he has identified the wrong culprit. It is not the medium of television per se that is responsible. Rather, it is the ability of content producers to measure audience response and engagement at a granular scale and at a high frequency, which happened to develop around the same time as television (Nielsen ratings started with radio in the late 40s and with television in 1950). When one does this, one inevitably reaches the conclusion that the most engagement-producing and therefore profitable approach is to appeal to our lizard brains rather than our rational brains–in effect, exploiting weaknesses in human evolution. Prior to Nielsen ratings, probably the best a media company could have done would have been to observe circulation of its entire publication, without any granular information on individual stories/elements. Of course, Nielsen ratings were just the beginning of a phenomenon that has bloomed into maturity with Facebook. Importantly, the nature of the medium itself seems more or less irrelevant in this telling–Postman is enamored of the virtues of a text-based culture, but we all know from the rise of fake news (and “fake news” as an idea) that text can be just as toxic when combined with rapid feedback on engagement and reinforcement from ad sales.

So, does this diagnosis lead to any prescriptions different from Postman’s? One would certainly be not to be overly swayed by the medium through which information is consumed–we all know that text-only Reddit can be a very toxic place, and is certainly worse than PBS. Rather, I think the prescription is to seek out and support content-delivery models that are not primarily premised on maximizing “engagement,” and especially that are not funded by ad sales, since that simply reinforces the engagement loop. In this taxonomy, Netflix is preferable to ad-supported TV despite the fact that they certainly collect very granular information on viewership–they are just funded by your monthly subscription, rather than by exactly what you watch when. Many of Postman’s conclusions would still hold–books and print periodicals are still great. But I think this view offers a bit more hope–we don’t necessarily need to swear off entire types of media delivery, but rather, to consciously support some business/organizational models over others.

(Final ironic note: for all that Postman is into text as the best content delivery method, I actually listened to this as an audiobook, because it was the only format that my library had. I do think I would have enjoyed the text version more!)

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

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