Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is the most discouraging book I've read in a while (and I read some depressing books). I think there's a general consensus that watching TV isn't necessarily the best use of time. Watching TV is a personal choice—no one is forced to do it. So if it's not the best use of time there's an easy fix: turn it off. (That's why people have started campaigns like TV Turnoff Week which is sort of the modern equivalent of religious asceticism. You do your penance for seven days then go back to your real life watching TV. People even call it TV fasting.)

What Postman says in this book is far more depressing and there's no easy fix. He argues that television as a medium is bad for society. His thesis is that Orwell had it wrong—people won't be controlled by a totalitarian state that rewrites history and imprisons people with a manufactured culture. Instead, the medium of TV makes all culture trivial entertainment, closer to Huxley's dystopian Brave New World. He points out the futility of trying to point out this problem with the question, "To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles?" Postman sees TV like a virus. It trivializes everything it touches while its main purpose is to reinforce the act of watching TV. He sees Sesame Street not as a fun, educational show for kids. He describes it as television-indoctrination for kids. He sees the nightly news not as necessary information for informed citizens, but as entertainment that isolates citizens from their community. It's not that television producers are trying to trivialize, he argues, it's just inherent in the medium. And because TV is our culture's primary medium, it displaces other forms of communication that don't trivialize the subject of their message.

I guess what I found so disturbing is that there's no clear answer to the problem. He argues in the last chapter that media education is part of a solution. He says, "...no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what the dangers are." And that's what this book is trying to do: help television users understand the dangers. Of course this statement also applies to a medium I care about much more than TV: weblogs.

Comments

You think that weblogs trivialize issues and isolate people from their community? Blogging is a far more active medium, encouraging active participation through self-publishing and reader comments. If anything, I've found that they unite people in new ways, locally and globally.
I agree with you, and I was only tying weblogs to that last statement about the dangers of any medium. We don't necessarily understand what the dangers of weblogs could be. It's not a topic of discussion in the weblog world. The dangers are probably very different from those of TV...but I think we should be critical of our own medium while criticizing others.
I know you didn't start off picking on blogs, but since the correllation between TV and Blogs has been brought up, I offer this:

Much like a hammer, blogs can build a house or knock someone in the head, just as TV can edify or stupify. I can read/watch fluff on blogs/tv or I can seek out good stuff on blogs/tv. Probably not a point that needs to be driven home here, but I think I'd probably disagree with the author of the book because from the sounds of it, he blames the medium itself, not how we as humans use it. Some of us make shows like Cops. Others make shows like Nova. Some of us write about ficus trees on our blogs (me) and others write smart stuff (pb).

I agree with Andy that blogs encourage active participants, but I'd suggest that the majority of blogs are much like TV in that they're just another source of content, mindless or not, and have very little interaction with those consuming the content.

My lucidity has worn off. Where's the remote?
Don't forget about the "family" in Fahrenheit 451 - where the wife basically watches a 3-wall television that talks to her all the time. Interactive - sort of like weblogs. I agree with Michael, they are often just another source of content.

Information overload seems to burn us all out at one point in time or another.
Yeah, Michael, Postman spends a lot of time in the book showing how "serious, educational" TV like Nova is no different from Cops. Because all TV lacks historical context, avoids complexity and exposition, and keeps everything very easy to digest, TV promotes a certain agenda by its very nature. I'm not quite as pessimistic myself, and I think TV *could* be used for good...but I have to agree that its primary uses today are very poor. (A lot of it stems from the advertising-driven necessity for large audiences, I think.) Yeah, I think about that scene from Fahrenheit 451 a lot, Christine. It's one of those images that told me something about myself that I didn't want to hear. I hadn't connected it with weblog comments before, though.
Now that you mention it, weblogs do a pretty good job of breaking culture up into simple, digestible bits of info-edutainment, just like television does. The rise of the sideblog (or daily links, or micromemes, etc, whatever they're called) is a testament to the fact that we're doing a more and more efficient job of finding and metabolizing all of these news stories and curiosities -- each mostly out of context, as we lump Jako and Paris Hilton links with articles about Iraq or trampled shoppers. It's not that different from network news in the way that it trivializes.

What we (as modern weblog-type geeks) understand is that when curiosities and ideas are discussed within a community - even the relatively small readership of one website - the bits are given value, and placed it within a context of shared experience, idea exchange, and morals. I think that weblogs (and the web at large) stand apart not because the process of writing and responding is interactive, but because the interacting and discussing builds relationships, a moral context, idea connections... and other sorts of personal developments that rebeccablood once outlined two-thirds of the way down her original essay on weblogs ( http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html ).

Beyond that, I don't think it fundamentally matters whether you get your digestible bits from TV or films or magazines or brief chats with strangers. I don't think there's much value in facts (or in keeping up with current events) unless you really take the time to discuss them with family, friends and community.

It comes down to stories, I think. Water-cooler chit-chat and quick comment thoughts are no substitute for real stories, told about our own people, that help us better understand how to live our lives. Once upon a time, in the days of tribes (or churches, or town newspapers) people must have naturally learned only about events and ideas that had been community filtered - stories that meant something within community context. This preserved identity.

I guess modern media is, for the most part, filtered only to sell. As such, most of it is rendered worthless. Weblog social networks filter better than network affiliates, but it's still not really a substitute for dinner table conversation.

Imagine if you limited media consumption to 5 web pages per day, or 30 minutes of television, and spent the rest of your media time discussing those few pages with people you cared about. Wouldn't that be more productive than just reading and watching as much info and entertainment as possible? There just isn't time anymore.

Sorry for rambling. Now, back to NPR.
We have unspoken rules about complexity in weblog comments, ryan. Dispatch the thought police!

I definitely think the web and email have given some power back to the printed word for communication. But we're still dominated by TV. It defines how we think about problems. So maybe weblogs are a necessary intermediate step between a TV culture and a culture that exchanges ideas via dissertations.
FWIW, Postman pretty much went wacko liberal moralist in his later years. He was much more interesting and less reactionary in his earlier "Teaching As A Subversive Activity" days.
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