Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amusing Ourselves to Death

I recently finished Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death. As I thumb back through the pages, I notice numerous highlighted passages. Full of insightful, thought-provoking ideas, the book challenges me to think about my culture and its effect on me.

"TV," Postman writes, "makes everything about the present." It "is, indeed, a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification."

"American television is devoted to entertainment," says Postman, and while he believes entertainment has its place, he goes on to explain that television "has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether."

We are pulled from one topic to another, one image to the next, and we are not asked to think or ponder anything abstract; we are not challenged to make any connection of meaning from one idea to the next. Thinking or questioning statements and assumptions just doesn't keep the show moving. It is boring to watch someone think. "Thinking doesn't pay well on television."

Postman argues that our image-laden culture has helped propel us in a harmful direction, and we are suffering although many of us don't even realize it. He concludes with a reference to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Huxley," he says, "was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking."

I highly recommend this book.

Neal Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 2006).