Saturday, August 28, 2010

Entertaining Ourselves to Death.... with the internet?

Amusing Ourselves to DeathI just finished Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was first talked about by my favorite Lit proff in college, and since then so many people have referenced the book that I knew I had to read it and finally got around to it this summer.

It IS a fascinating read. It's written in the mid-80's mainly about the dangers of television. The main arguement is that the way we communicate changes our culture and even what is being communicated. The medium DOES matter. And.... he thinks that television is changing every aspect of our culture negatively, and because we mostly passively accept TV as a medium and rather say what is good or bad on TV, we are being swept away passively.

It's interesting reading his book 25 years later. Some of what he predicts happening I believe really has happened, particularly as he identifies specifics of how the medium of TV affects our children's education, religion, and politics. It's true that it has become super important for our politicians to be resonably attractive and entertaining people that can stand up on John Stewart's show and make us feel like they are confident, easy-going, and funny. Most likely Lincoln and Washington wouldn't have passed such a test. It's true that passionate, emotionally persuasive people have become the most prominant voices in religious circles - the same types that match the TV host personality that we have learned to like and be entertained by. It's true that by teaching our kids using programs like Sesame Street and Barney, they learn that education should be entertaining and have a low tolerance for the mundane.

What I think is profound about Postman's thoughts is that he identifies how dangerous it is when we let ourselves be overly entertained. Back in Postman's day and before it, people were worried by the Communist scare and were afraid of a totalitarian government domination. Postman says:

For all his perspicacity, George Orwell would have been stymied by this situation; there is nothing "Orwellian" about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference... it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.
I find TV and the rise of an entertainment culture to be dangerous for the same reasons. As a kid we rarely had TV and when we did our time watching it was strongly limited. It's not that my parents hated TV.... in fact, when a TV is on my Dad is drawn to it and can't pay attention to anything else. That's part of why they limited it - they recognized the power and draw of it. After we watched a movie my parents always made us analyze what the movie was teaching. I so appreciate that they never let us be passive recipients of entertainment.

Postman again here:

There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first - the Orwellian - culture becomes a prison. In the second - the Huxleyan - culture becomes a burlesque... 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.... 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.
However, Postman writes in a world not yet inundated with the internet. Considering how strong Postman is on the fact that changes in the medium of communication changes the message and the culture, I'd be interested to see how the internet changes things from the TV age. TV is still important, but I'd say I am more influenced by the internet. I spend far more time on the net. I don't get my news via TV, I read internet news articles, so in some ways we are taken back to a print age.

However, the internet still fascilitates information in "blurb" form rather than detailed analysis like you can find in books. The internet somewhat lessens the importance of the "entertainer" factor that is so important in the faces that lead TV. Bloggers, Web editors, etc., do not have to be charismatic in person. However, it does have the effect of leveling the playing field because anyone can write for the public eye. We hear less from truly educated experts and more from just public opinion. It also increasingly inundates us with information so that we have almost all information at our fingertips, but very little system to incorporate all of this trivia into. Postman identified some of this in the TV world:
The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world. I say this in the face of the popular conceit that television, as a window to the world, has made Americans exceedingly well-informed. Much depends here, of course, on what is meant by being informed... in America everyone is entitled to an opinion... but these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth or nineteenth century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week.
I think in some ways the internet improves on television. It requires more personal initiative, it reduces the role of pure entertainment, and it can connect you with people instead of just a tube showing strangers. However, it can still be trivial, it still can distract us from meaninful interaction with people, and it still doesn't encourage in depth learning.

Interesting. I wish I could read Postman's thoughts on the Internet Age.


Jaimie said...

Kacie, these thoughts are just bril.

At least with the internet people have to actively participate. Come up with content that will make them involved. The internet encourages thought. Not much, but more than TV.

People lose themselves on YouTube, but a lot of them are actually making YouTube content, and I think there's an intelligence and awareness that arises out of even the lowest forms of creativity.

Rach said...

I'm re-reading Huxley's A Brave New World, so that part of Postman's quote caught my interest, especially the phrase "when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments." Even as a believer with a higher purpose I often find myself having to examine my motives, and make sure I'm not making fun and entertainment the primary goal of my existence. Does the way I am filling my time have any ultimate significance? On the other hand, how much do I have to worry about that..... aren't I free to spend a lot of time enjoying myself here on earth... is that ultimately wrong?

Thanks for the food for thought. Insightful post, as always. Hope you are feeling well and that your little mann is growing strong.

Leah said...

Wow! This struck me: "All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference"

I agree with Jaimie that the internet requires more participation than TV, but it is still usually superficial. On the other hand, the internet has been a way for me to make meaningful connections with people that I really identify with, where I've had a hard time finding those connections "in real life." It's easy to get caught up in it though and let it get out of hand. It's a constant struggle to maintain balance.

That Married Couple said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!