Can you believe I waited 38 years to read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman? I’ve heard about the book and had a feeling I should read it someday, but 38 years?
Writing in 1984, Postman noted that the world at that time was not Orwellian as much as it recalled the vision Aldous Huxley wrote down in his own dystopia, Brave New World, where people were obsessed with pleasure and especially the magic drug soma.
While 19th century American discourse was drawn from the written word, Postman said that electronics, especially television but going all the way back to the telegraph, had changed the nature of discourse to favor much shorter bites. One of the Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted seven hours, he noted, and the television has reduced that carefully crafted, complicated dissertation to a 30-second political ad.
We are in the era of show business. Everything including journalism and politics is packaged as entertainment, he said. Presidential “debates” are treated like boxing matches (“Oh, he got a good jab in there”) and election night is covered like a championship game. News anchors are entertainers, not journalists. Politicians are entertainers, not statesmen. It’s all about who wins the sporting event, not whose ideas carry the most weight.
And Postman wrote this in 1984, before the internet and the “smart” phone took it all to the next level.
Orwell has caught up with us at last, and we live in the totalitarian world that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm warned us about. But we got there in a manner more like Huxley, or a novel that has gained in stature over the years, Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury said people wouldn’t be burning books because the government insisted; it would be by popular demand as people cowered before ideas and feelings that made them uncomfortable.
I’m self-conscious about trying to write 300-500 words about a book that described how we have degraded public discourse to short bursts, comforted by the notion that Postman was writing about much shorter bursts than this one. Nowadays any particular subject scrolls by in less than a second as we glue our eyes to tiny glowing screens.
It’s impossible to absorb a book like this all at once, and no doubt I’ll have more to say as Postman’s thoughts simmer into mine. It would behoove me, no doubt, to explore some of his more recent work, but for now I’m impressed by a book that saw today coming 38 years ago.