While in college, I read Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology as part of my requisite biology curriculum. A decade later, although I found Technopoly fascinating and though many of Postman’s works are bestselling resources, I still had not read any of Postman’s additional works until this month. Of those works, perhaps one of his most well known is this, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Show Business.
Amusing Ourselves to Death was first published in 1985, when Postman initially addressed the role that television was playing in the transformation of our culture’s medium and message of communication. Now, with the inventions and widespread use of newer, multiple-media technology, such additions have only spread those changes exponentially.
Postman frequently refers to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to illustrate the type of societally-imposed demise he believes we will eventually see as a consequence of this shift. (He contrasts this with George Orwell’s 1984, showing that these two tragedies differ in that Huxley’s is self-imposed, while 1984‘s tragedy is the result of government-imposed changes.)
Postman is no Luddite, but he does believe that the way we treat and spread information is important to a society, and indicative of their values. He strongly believes that the medium is the message, and that the medium of television (and now, other related forms of communication) has, in a large part, dumbed us down emotionally and intellectually in the way the we take in and share information. These changes also affect how we approach politics, religion, education, and journalism. Stemming from this main premise are a host of other valuable ideas.
I am with Postman in believing that the massive acceptance of the television culture has been detrimental to our society. (It should probably be noted that for many years I grew up without a television, then we added a TV without cable; for the first years of our family, we had no TV, either. We now have a TV, but still no cable. That said, I’m clearly biased in this direction already; but at the same time, I have also not been desensitized in the way someone who has watched television nearly every day of their life may have been.) However, I believe there is also a hugely positive aspect to technology, and believe that future generations may one day look back upon the beginning of The Age of the Internet (or The Age of Technology, or…who knows what it will be called?) as one that highlights the collective brilliance of humanity, the wonder of math and science, and the impressive accessibility of information.
This shift in communication is certainly not the first of it’s kind. Similar fears, concern,s and changes took place when a shift from oral communication to written communication transformed the world of the Greek and Roman classical period. And then, again, when the Age of the Printing Press made a smaller shift from the handwritten world to the printed world.
While technology has dramatically changed since Postman’s original publication, I find many of his concerns relevant and helpful. Perhaps at times, some concerns could come off as fear-mongering. Yet, for the culture and communication at large, I think these are valid concerns that deserve to be addressed.