. . . or, now more than ever we’re being amused to death
Back in the now so very distant mid-1980s educator and media philosopher Neil Postman wrote a book with the prescient title Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was about how the transcendence of visual news media (TV) over the written word has fundamentally changed the way we think, and thus experience reality. People were (are) reading less and less and spending more time looking at alluring imagery via the tube.
Digesting the written word builds a capacity into our brain that can facilitate thinking, reasoning and logical analysis. According to Postman reading does this better than television viewing. Mind you, Postman’s insights were a full decade before the PC computer was a common element in every home—the internet was just a concept, and social media like Facebook hadn’t even been dreamed of.
He contrasts two classic dystopian novels: 1984 and Brave New World. He believed that the “soma” of television and other mindless entertainments posed a bigger threat to civilization than the Big Brother-ism of a 1984 type of society. A pervasive video based entertainment would dull people into a state of hypnotic apathy. They would readily become slaves. It appears to becoming true. A recent study showed that the average American kid watches 5-hours of television per day plus another 2.5-hours of computer screen time or other visual media. That’s a staggering 50% of all awake time. I’m sure the time spent reading is a small fraction of that. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I would guess that my TV time was not much more than an hour per day.
I read two books in the past year that emphasize the power and importance of the written word on history. In 1517, Wittenberg was just another small unimportant university town among many in the scattered states that comprised the dormant Holy Roman Empire. But Wittenberg also had a young contentious Augustinian monk and a printing press–and in less than two decades Martin Luther’s pithy tracts and short books transformed the course of Western civilization–and made him the most famous man in Europe. Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree examines how the recently invented printing press and Luther changed history. Also, in Scotland in the early 1700s a clergyman named John Knox created a hunger in the laity for reading Scripture, and by 1750, Scotland, the poorest nation in Europe was also the most literate. How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman tells how this small impoverished nation of few natural resources changed the world due to mastery of the written word.
It’s hard not to think of Neil Postman and his caveats about the consequences of reading and thinking versus viewing mindless infotainment during this over-wrought electoral season when our “reality” has been reduced to memes, rancorous sound bites–and gotcha gossip shows like TMZ shape the way we think.
The 24/7 “news” channels are dedicated more to amusement and opinion than to truth. Newspapers have all but died. I cancelled my subscription two year ago but I’m beginning to rethink that choice even though print “journalism” is mostly slanted left. I’m finding that much of the news on Yahoo or Facebook is click bait for either advertising or opinionated axe-grinding. At least with a newspaper I can peruse it at my leisure and choose what I want to read carefully vs. what I want to skim, or skip altogether–and I don’t have to put up with near as many deceptive ads. The video/visual news media is mostly just infotainment. Postman made that diagnosis 30-yrs ago–and it’s only devolved further.
However, in my opinion there’s been a smidgen of decent TV journalism via network shows like 60 Minutes, plus some reporting on PBS and the BBC. Also, oddly enough, Al Jazeera was promising. I watched them on occasion and they did some fairly unbiased journalistic stories. I saw some very good coverage on Scotland’s vote on whether to remain in the UK. Unfortunately their ratings were so poor they went off the air a few months back. It’s apparent that there’s not a very strong market for serious news when infotainment is the option.
It appears more folks amuse themselves with Fox than with MSNBC, CNN and the major networks combined. Snarks from the left like to refer to Fox News as Faux News. But I prefer Fox. And why not, they offer the leggiest news panel babes. I’ll take Harris Faulkner, Kimberly Guilfoyle or Sandra Smith any day before Rachel Maddow or Ashleigh Banfield. I recall reading somewhere that the root of the word amuse is from the French and means “to look at.” Anyway, I guess my choice proves Postman’s point.
Neil Postman died in 2003, at the age of 72. One wonders what he would write about social media, reality shows, 24/7 news channels and the current election.