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Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

 Ezra Klein kept mentioning Amusing Ourselves to Death, so I had to check it out from the library. The book is a criticism of the television-oriented culture we find ourselves in, and compares it unfavorably with the age of print/age of rationality. In some ways, it's got a rosy eyed view of the age of rationality/age of print, since that coincided with much of the population enslaved and unable to read.

One of the interesting statements the books make is that the telegraph was in many ways just as bad as twitter is today:

the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. But this was not all: Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase. The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography. (kindle loc 1299)

He laments the introduction of photography, since once that became widespread and it was possible to distribute newspapers with photographs that are printed, the photograph naturally became much more popular than the printed word. Television, of course, combines the worst of both worlds, with the instant imagery transmitted across the globe.

In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a serious form of public discourse....You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters. You would advertise the show, both in the press and on television itself. You would do “news briefs,” to serve as an inducement to viewers. You would have a weatherman as comic relief, and a sportscaster whose language is a touch uncouth (as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common man). You would, in short, package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business. The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world...television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. (kindle loc 1623, 1789-1839)

You'll find ;yourself nodding away at the statements above, since American society does seem incredibly superficial and obviously obsessed only with the beautiful people. I'm the kind of person who'd much rather read a book than watch a documentary or video, so of course I would agree with Neil Postman. I think his analogy that Huxley's "Brave New World" is much more relevant us than George Orwell's "1984" is correct:

 What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. (kindle loc 2566)

 Postman, however, doesen't have any answers or solutions for us. His luke-warm proposal is that we education children to be able to distinguish between truth and lies. But of course we're not very good at teaching children in schools! Furthermore, it's not clear to me that even education can have much impact. For instance, you can know that something is an optical illusion, but your eyes still see that illusion and think it's real. You can watch a movie knowing that it's entirely fictional, but that won't reduce the emotional impact of the movie. In that sense, you can come away from the book quite pessimistic.

Regardless, the book makes many great points and is well worth reading. It was written before twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media, and yet managed to predict that these technologies are ultimately detrimental to civil society and our politics. Any book that can predict the future that far in advance should be on your must-read shelf.

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