Amusing Ourselves to Death

I just finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

It’s a terrific and quick read. (Its brevity is actually quite ironic given the book is about how television has cheapened and maniplated public discourse – resulting in the political soundbite and the paper USA Today)

The book is over twenty years old but its theme is even more relevant today; basically, that we’re becoming a culture of individuals, molded by television’s mode of communication, that expect our Education, Religion, and Politics to be delivered quick and entertainingly, bite-sized and easily digestible; and without any need for exposition or context, causing a harmful deterioration in our modern public discourse.

It confirms many of my suspicions about the role television plays in how we process our lives.

And I couldn’t put it into words but I knew that T.V took away something deeply human in us.

Especially the news.

I’ve always found it odd that following a horrific report full of mayhem, murder, and death, the newscaster can seamlessly switch over to sports, or the weather, or a fuzzy piece about a cat stuck in a tree. This kind of juxtaposition of serious/alarming and trivial/amusing has to have some kind of consequence on the viewing public. It must lead to some kind of a desensitized populace, an audience that doesn’t ever truly grasp the images they are seeing — that’s the reason people are so fucked up.

Along comes Neil Postman to break it down.

We have become so accustomed to its discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King.

This kind of emotional pinball was really getting to me during Hurricane Katrina. I remember vividly the rage I felt when they went to a commercial for Brawny — seeing a housewife crying over a spilled cup of coffee, how her paper towels dissolved before her eyes trying to clean it up, then the Brawny man showing up to rescue her — meanwhile the residents of New Orleans were waiting out the commercial break on their rooftops with signs that said ‘help us’, as toxic, inflamed floodwater crept higher and higher.

Where the hell is the Brawny man when you really need him?

(By the way, I prefer 1970’s Brawny man to his modern day incarnation)

The news returned and the anchorman continued to a lighter story, with the same stolid countenance on his plastic, powdered face. I never did find out what happen to the people on the roof. I remember wondering at the time, does this guy ever have nightmares?

It is also of considerable help in maintaining a high level of unreality that the newscasters do not pause to grimace or shiver when they speak their prefaces or epilogs to their film clips. Indeed, many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings, and other disasters.

Is it even biologically possible for a newscaster to cry? Or were they born without tear ducts and thus fell into that line of work?

I ask these questions — knowing that the answer is irrelevant, that even should a newscaster be moved emotionally by a story, it’s his or her job to remain detachedly calm when delivering the details of said news story. My only point is to point out that the ‘news’ is not about supplying the populace with information, but with entertainment.

Think of the opening music to ABC’s Nightly News.

That dramatic score is meant to prepare you for the “seriousness” of what is to follow, however nothing is too serious to not take time out to sell paper towels.

When the half hour is over, we move on to Jeopardy, where information and knowledge as entertainment is never more obvious. The transition is subtle, but when you think about it Jeopardy proves that what you have just seen is rather unimportant to you, unless you happen to be one of the few unfortunate souls the news was about that night, otherwise, it’s merely the answer to a question in a game show one day.

There is no final essay, or oral exam, at the end of Jeopardy. No back and forth discussion of knowledge. It is knowledge merely for the sake of entertainment. No offense to Ken Jennings, who is brilliant and a fine writer, but Jeopardy is not a sign of genius, but of having a brain that’s a vessel for facts and trivia and the ability to recall them quickly.

But that’s fine, you might say, people are learning trivia and enjoying themselves at the end of the long day, what’s wrong with that?

Well, I would reply, it’s not Jeopardy that is the problem so much as it’s Jeopardy combined with the News and Sesame Street and Televangelism and the way our political campaigns are run that has a detrimental effect on us as a populace. It’s the whole chain of events that happens, starting with Saturday morning cartoons when we’re four and continuing on with each September sweeps. We’ve lost the ability to truly analyze the issues, to research policy differences, to spend more than two minutes on a subject before getting bored and moving on.

Neil Postman wrote this eye-opening book long before the emergence of ADD, but I wonder if he wouldn’t suppose that its correlation to the rise of television is no coincidence.

Television has certainly changed our behavior and our habits, perhaps it’s literaly changing our DNA too.

It’s something to think about, long and hard and quietly.

I notice its effect all the time when writing this blog. When I complete a lengthy paragraph, that should be one whole paragraph, I often try to find a way to break it up into two smaller paragraphs because I know a reader might take one look at it and flip to the next blog – perhaps Perez’s.

So yes, I’m a child of the 80’s and have the attention span of a rat; and I also know that my readers are children of the 80’s and 90’s and some have the attention span of a gnat, so I keep it reaaaal short. I’m sure many readers have already bailed on me by this point, so to those that have made it this far, I thank you and salute you.

It’s tough. There is always some distraction from reality, so much so that reality, now, is a distraction. It’s easier to go online and search for images of a mountain stream than to go camping. Techonology has replaced experience. We are a nation where the dad or the mom IMs the children to come to dinner, and where the children text their friends while watching Idol during it, and afterwards they all go to seperate rooms to watch their seperate LCD TVs.

We are our own jail keepers and get to chose the layout and furniture of our cages so we don’t really notice the bars.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

Amusing Ourselves to Death argues that our fascist state more closely mirrors A Brave New World than 1984. It’s hard to refute that premise.

Look around and all you see are Americans indulging in their ignorance, unable to pay attention to any one thing for any great period of time. (and yes, I’m speaking in the general, not for everybody)

Techonology is the soma in this story, as long as we have our fix we’re too busy using it to address any of the problems in Washington. We’re not going to cause any trouble when there’s the Web to surf, Wiis to play. We’re a culture that is so fast paced that we’re already on a different news cycle than when I started this essay an hour ago, how could any one ever expect us to address the more complex issues of the day? It’s much easier, and more entertaining, to show a car chase on the local news than which corporation is dumping what into the creek.

What is the solution?

I don’t know.

You can’t take the cheese out of a grilled cheese sandwich.

Kill your T.V?

Then you still have Youtube to deal with, which might even be worse than Television. Youtube doesn’t try to sell you paper towels; but on the other hand, Youtube is even more frivolous than T.V, and dangerously more immediate. And if you really wanted to, you could go and find a commercial for Brawny. In fact, here is a really creepy one.

What happens to us when we feel that amusement is always at our fingertips, only a click away? The Internet is an endless string of ‘what should we do next?’. The half hour sitcom is now just a 4 minute clip of Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There’s always something else to look up, look at, or read.

If Neil Postman was around today, he would probably say something like: what we have to fear is not the rule of a Big Brother type government, but the corrosive, internal effect of the television show Big Brother.

Ironically, a show named after the book 1984 (although denied in the disclaimer) has more to do with A Brave New World than 1984.

We choose a form of mental self-imprisonment — preferring passive entertainment over deep, critical thought — so the government needn’t bother with any sinister mind control.

There are no minds left to control.

We need a giant awakening in this country, a splash of cold water thrown in the face of every American.

We can’t avoid the problems of the day just by turning the channel, in many ways that is the problem of the day. We need to turn off the T.V, the Internet, this blog… and go outside, read a book, sit and talk with a friend. We need to learn what it means to be human again, without the aid of simple distractions, flashing doo-hickeys. We must slow down and open our eyes more.

The world is going on around us and you don’t need HD to see it.

Now, carry on…


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