The world has changed much in 30 years: today, we have access to more information than we’ll ever need in 100 lifetimes through a device that fits in our pocket. We can communicate face to face to relatives across the world in real time through a screen. These are just a couple of the many differences found in early 21st century society, so one would think that a book written about technology in 1985 would be irrelevant to today’s technology users. Ironically, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is even more important today than 3 decades ago. To be certain, there are some laughable anecdotes: near the end of the last chapter, Postman claims that computers are “a vastly overrated technology” which couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Nonetheless, so much of what he says in Amusing Ourselves is spot on and even truer today.
Postman compares Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. People are always concerned about a real life “Big Brother”– government control, censorship and spying to name a few. While these concerns have been a reality found in recent history, Postman claims North American society is much closer to Brave New World than 1984. Postman claims that there will always be opposition to totalitarian control and censorship as it is very identifiable and a clear infringement on a society’s rights. It is Huxley’s theory of an entertainment culture- one too absorbed to care about oppression- that is the greatest threat to our society. North American society has come to adore their amusing technological oppression.
Postman looks at the print society of the enlightenment years- schooling was few and far between, yet books couldn’t be printed fast enough to satisfy society’s thirst for knowledge. Postman cites the debates Abraham Lincoln had with Stephen A. Douglas: Douglas would first be given an hour to speak, Lincoln an hour and a half, then Douglas again for an hour and a half reply. These debates were shorter than what they were accustomed too, and yet common men and women would attend them as an informing, yet restful event. The attention span of today’s average Joe would not be able to handle such a long, complex activity. As a comparison, Postman especially criticizes television news for this reason: each news story is given minutes (if that) to be presented before it is quickly switched out for the following story. The viewer barely has time to think about what s/he just saw before being pummeled with more information. I recall a few months back watching television news with family (I do not have cable in my own home so this is a rarity for myself) and I was shocked to see things like murders, protests, and other devastating issues being given seconds of screen time vs. the ten minutes a feel-good story about an abstract painter was given. Viewers don’t want to end off on a sad note lest they start thinking of implications for their own lives.
Even though Postman focuses on television culture, these observations and even more true today. Distraction culture is more prominent now with smart phones: individuals can barely make it through an hour without checking their updates, replying to a text or scrolling through the web. When groups of people go out to eat or to other social activities, most of the time is now spent looking at phones instead of conversing. We are more interconnected than ever before, yet lonelier than ever because we have lost the art of meaningful conversation and appreciation for enjoying activities that don’t revolve around a screen.
If Postman were alive today, I would be very interested to hear what he’d say about today’s entertainment culture. I know for myself his book had a profound influence for me and I have begun to examine myself when I am spending excess time on social media or other wasteful forms of entertainment. I have been spending more time doing more meaningful activities that are still restful, and I have been appreciating the fruits that come from that. I recommend everyone to evaluate themselves using Amusing Ourselves, and to make positive changes in their lives.