Artist Series: Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Liz Backstrom

“The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing, on the radio, or for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television.” – Neil Postman

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was one of the only people I knew who didn’t have cable TV or an at-home computer. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice on our part as much as it meant we were poor. I found this to be somewhat of a cramp in my style, especially when I visited the houses of friends with slick PCs and 200 channels. But mostly I read a lot. For better or worse, kids are adaptable.

I didn’t recognize it until later, but this experience instilled in me a lifelong love of books. More important, it gave me the ability to entertain myself for hours without electronics. I couldn’t have imagined then how useful that would be.

Today I have the money to buy a nice TV and computer. I’m writing this essay on one right now. But still, I prefer books, longform essays and newspapers (some in digital format, to be sure) to TV or mediums like Twitter.

That’s nice, you might be thinking, but why should I care?

Because the switch from a culture based on the written word to one based largely on images affects you, in ways you may not have realized. That switch is the subject of Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), by Neil Postman.

Much has been written recently about our current political culture and the divides it creates. Still more has been written about the rise of technology use, the dip in attendance at traditional community institutions like churches and social clubs, and how these changes affect the way we all view each other. Relatively little has been written about how we got here in the first place; that is, to a place where what is valued is speed, looks and attention.

Many of us are unhappy with the way things are. Or at least we feel a vague sense of being in a hurry or on display most of the time, yet we don’t know how to make it stop. We’re not satisfied, yet we have not wondered why this might be. If we have, we blame it on what are arguably symptoms (political candidates, news channels, electronic devices, work hours) rather than root causes.

Neil Postman is the exception to this norm. The author of several books and a professor for more than forty years at New York University, Postman was well-known as a critic of technology’s impact on culture before his death in 2003. He was not afraid to wonder. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a bible for the zeitgeist of today’s fast-moving culture and is worth re-discovering.

His witty and prophetic work is mostly about television, but it could apply word for word to the ways our culture has changed following the adoption of social media, data analytics and other tools.

He argues we have failed to examine the impact of the transition from a largely written-word society to one that is mostly image-based. The invention of the telegraph, and then the television, created ‘news of the day’ (events most of us might read about but will affect few). Attention spans shifted. No longer would audiences sit for events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted hours. Most of us feel deluged by news events we can do nothing about. The cultural implications, he says, are profound, and have gone largely unnoticed.

Think about the first 15 presidents of the United States. Most of their constituents would be unlikely to recognize them if they passed by on the street. No one knew what they looked like. Can you imagine?

These men were instead known for their speeches, for those who could hear them. For the rest of the country, they were known by newspaper accounts of speeches they gave, letters they wrote and whatever else the public could read about them.

Today nothing could be further from that reality. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, a large part of choosing our leaders has to to with their photogenic qualities. In your recollection, since the advent of television, have any of the presidents (or many governors, state senators, news anchors, celebrity pastors, etc) been bald? How about overweight? In the the fields of journalism and public policy, a good discussion of ideas is not worth as much as a good haircut.

Somehow, in the last half-century or more, we’ve completely switched our paradigm for viewing leaders, and in doing so, have created a culture of celebrity that has changed the way we view the pulpit, politics, journalism and almost every public arena. You might think this doesn’t affect you, but science shows us we’re all affected by bias. And most of that bias starts with what we see.

“Considerable evidence suggests that dividing the world into Us and Them is deeply hard-wired in our brains, with an ancient evolutionary legacy,” wrote Robert Sapolsky in a 2017 essay for Nautilus magazine. “We detect Us/Them differences with stunning speed. Stick someone in a “functional MRI”—a brain scanner that indicates activity in various brain regions under particular circumstances. Flash up pictures of faces for 50 milliseconds—a 20th of a second—barely at the level of detection. And remarkably, with even such minimal exposure, the brain processes faces of Thems differently than Us-es.”

Our human tendency to character by a face already exists. In a culture based on image, that weakness is increasingly exploited in almost every visible medium, and many invisible ones.

Postman’s brilliant critique invites us to closely examine not just the effects of these changes, as many of us have already done, but to look at the tools themselves and how they fundamentally influence our culture and conversation. When we make gains, (which he allows television provided, such as coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) we make choices. We bring something to trade. The error isn’t in making the trade, but in leaving the trade unexamined.

He gives the example of clocks, which completely changed the way we think about time. Minutes, hours, and seconds play a pivotal role in our lives and in the way we measure almost everything. Yet they are, like most measurements, just an invention. Before we had clocks, we had the seasons.

“Moment to moment, as it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s,” Postman says. “It is man conversing with himself about and through a machine he created.”

As an artist, Postman inspires me because he is not afraid to examine the hard questions in our society. He takes almost nothing at face value, asks ‘why’ about everything and forces the reader to rethink almost all their long-held assumptions. He’s funny, for all that, and well worth the time spent on his work. If you want to know how we got to today’s media culture, Postman is an indispensable read.

Liz Backstrom is a freelance writer for Spokane Faith & Values and works as a grant writer for Second Harvest Inland Northwest. She has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and an MPA from Eastern Washington University.

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