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 choiceno 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 wrongpeople 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.