Sunday, April 24, 2011

Amusing Ourselves to Death- Book Review

Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death presents an almost prophetic look at modern American discourse. Postman starts with a brief history of discourse in general. He covers the oral tradition of Plato, where logic and the well spoken word reigned supreme. Postman also spends a few chapters following the progression through history, highlighting inventions that fundamentally changed public discourse. The printing press, for example, sparked widespread reading of literature. This invention’s byproducts were the Reformation, and in some ways the Enlightenment movement. As cultures became more print oriented, so also did its public discourse. America, in contrast to all other societies to this point, was the most well read, “the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between eighty-nine percent and ninety-five percent… the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time.”(31) “For two centuries, America declared its intentions, expressed its ideology, designed its laws, sold its products…with black squiggles on white paper. It did its talking in topography.”(63) Then came the telegraph. From Postman’s viewpoint, it changed the way we look at information: no longer need news be localized, you can know it just for the sheer pleasure of knowing. This helped usher in a new age of discourse, one that Postman coins “the Age of Show Business.”(63)  Postman’s main argument is that the medium is the metaphor, “in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”(14) As American culture slides more and more toward a television based discourse, it has consequences, “I am no relativist in this matter…I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.”(27) Postman thinks that television has a place in our lives but that it should not be the centrifugal force.
        Postman’s style of writing can be hard to follow in some instances. He writes very logically in his sentence structure, so if you don’t follow his logic, you may get lost. The format of his book is also confusing at times; he attempts to address the issue at hand topically, at times also lapsing into a chronology. Postman does a good job of covering the idea of modern discourse and dialogue. His parallels and analogies are quite vivid; his observations about 1985 American culture are very accurate. One weakness in this book is the number of times Postman refers to other sources, to the extent that the reader should read the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, to gain better context for Postman’s writing. In his forward he states, “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”(xx) The length of the book does lend itself to brevity, but also sacrifices some clarity, for example, Postman does not address the positive aspects gained from visual media. He is much more pessimistic toward the current trends, and really does not address the weaknesses of other types of public discourse, such as print, and oral.
        My personal opinion about this book is that it is extremely critical and negative, while posing no real solutions to the issues of the year 2011. I do agree with Postman about the demise of typographic America, and the weakening of our civilization to its core. The fact that our sight overrules our foresight and logic does affect American culture drastically. The example of the presidential elections, that a Taft-esque President could not be elected, solely based off his appearance, proves Postman’s point well (7). But one aspect that Postman does not touch on is the aspect of emotions transferred to the viewer. When we watch a speaker on the television, we can see his passion in his body language and hear it in his voice. This can be a very powerful mode of discourse if used correctly.  President Obama’s use of YouTube is a great example. I do not think that Postman could have foreseen the rise of the internet, but many of his observations and problems he sees in television also exist on the internet. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.”(68) But the internet solves many of the problems that television could not. The internet, as a multimedia, serves the needs of basically all demographics, and is reshaping the playing field of public discourse. Society now can respond via blogs and comment pages to news media, and post rebuttals to inaccuracies. This medium, as YouTube proves, still can fall into the same pitfalls that television has: showing mindless trash, misrepresenting thoughts, people and ideologies, siphon emotions, just to name a few. The rising generations will have to cope with gluts of information, entertainment, distractions galore, and learn how to focus and balance media usage. This book may open the eyes of some who did not realize that “the Medium is the Metaphor.”  I believe Huxley was right, “what we love will ruin us” if we don’t wake up and use our Christian discernment in our lifestyle.

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