Amusing Ourselves to Death

Over the weekend I re-read Neil Postman’s fantastic Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I can’t say enough good things about. Seriously, this book is about as Jasony a book as they come, and no doubt a large influence on what makes me Jasony in the first place (previous post about the book).

If you haven’t read the book (shame on you), it’s essentially about how media shape the kinds of public discourse we have (specifically politics, current affairs, and education), and how America’s shift to a predominately television-centric country diminished its ability to have serious conversations about these issues.

Postman argues public discourse in America was founded at a time of pervasive (book) literacy. The media of print entails memory: arguments can be complex and built up over pages, chapters, and volumes; the reader must take time to think, process, and remember what they’ve read; books allow us to learn the great ideas of history and of our current society. There were (and still are) plenty of junk books, but books and print supported well-argued, serious discourse as well.

Conversely, in television we find a medium of entertainment. Like print, there is much junk content on TV, which is just fine. The problem, Postman argues, is when television tries to be serious, because it fails in spectacular ways. Television is an image-centric medium, and as such it’s impossible to have complex, rational arguments for or against anything. Think about how dreadfully boring a “talking head” is on TV news, and those usually only last for a few minutes at a time!

Where print requires you to remember, television requires you to forget. Instead of long, coherent discussion, you have a series of images strewn together which are almost meaningless. In his chapter “Now…this,” Postman looks at tv news as an example of this. Most news segments last about 60 seconds, and are placed in an incomprehensible order. A devastating mass murder, now a political gaffe, now a car recall, now unrest in the middle east, now an advertisement for retirement savings. Not to mention immediately following the news is Jeopardy.

Amusing Ourselves Today

“But Jason!” I see appearing in a thought bubble over your head, “the book was published in 1985, when television was the media in America, but these days its been displayed by app phones and the Web. Is this book still relevant in 2016?” Absolutely, unequivocally, yes.

The good news is, some software allows for interactivity and personal agency. Through email, blogs, and forums (i.e., written word), we can have complex, well-reasoned discourse (I said can). We can even improve some of the shortcomings of the printed word, by pulling in various sources via links, by including images and interactive, responsive diagrams and graphics, and by collaborating with many people around the world.

Software does not require us to sit quietly, mouth agape, awaiting amusement. But today’s software does ask us to do so, relentlessly.

Much of what we do with app phones is largely incoherent. I’ll read an email from a friend, now I’ll check twitter, now I’ll check Instagram, now I’ll write some code. And too often, even just within one of these apps it’s all incoherent. First, remember that for the overwhelmingly large majority of software users, today’s social software is “what you do” with a computer or phone; Facebook is the computing experience for many people. And within an app like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you have a series of things strewn together in a “feed.” An article about Donald Trump, now your cousin’s baby’s 2nd birthday, now (lol) a video of this goat who faints when its scared, now hey cool an ad for Chipotle.

Or take Instagram for example. True, you’re consistently getting images, but that’s about it. There’s no space for discourse on Instagram. Image dominates, and the strongest message you can really send is a “like.” There is literally little space for discussion, and the discussion is largely irrelevant anyway. Instagram shows, it does not discuss.

Books and Beyond

My interpretation of Amusing Ourselves to Death is its thesis goes beyond books and television, and again focuses more on how media relate to discourse. It’s not to say that the printed word is some kind of ultimate medium for discourse, just that it’s presently much, much better at it than is television (and I think, most of our software, too). There’s nothing wrong with media that entertain us, the problem is when a medium only entertains us and is incapable of having cogent conversations about anything else.

That problem is just as important today as it was 30 years ago.

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