We are amusing ourselves to death
When I am at home, the TV is usually on. I like the company, and since I am almost deaf, I don’t hear the constant yammer, clang and whistle, complete with musical interludes and the smarmy good will of the CNN staff ... all I hear is a low murmur like the surf at the beach. I’m only aware of the images which appear (for me) without an accompanying “message.” If anything shows up that looks interesting, I can read the captions that rush across the screen like teletype. Otherwise, I only glance occasionally at the visual flicker and flash. (This may be one of the few blessings of being hearing impaired.)
Among the distractions that I have not heard this morning is Nancy Grace’s rabid-hamster rant about the inept investigation of yet another murder; Pat Robinson frantically back-peddling from his suggestion that the U. S. should assassinate a Venezuelan president; the bleak results of a study on the attention span of high school students; a honey-bee invasion in a Buncombe County farm house; another car bomb explosion in Baghdad, and President Bush riding his bike in Crawford, Texas.
Essentially, all of these images are neatly packaged and delivered with efficient, fluid speed as the innocuous follows hard on the heels of the relevant. Much of it is what the network calls “significant information.” However, it is also something else — it’s entertainment.
Twenty years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman viewed the “information glut” created by TV and the rapid advances in technology with alarm. As computer specialists talked enthusiastically about the wondrous educational advantages of the new era, Postman raised a dissenting voice. New technology not only creates, he said; it also destroys. Let’s evaluate what is happening and progress with caution.
In general, the public prefers to be told good news — things like paradise and self-fulfillment are near. When Postman began to talk of possibly negative results of having our private lives made more accessible — of being reduced to numbers (statistics) and being tracked and controlled — the TV pundits branded him a “prophet of doom.” Postman persisted, telling the public that the new technology would make them easy targets for advertising agencies, political organizations and junk mail. He was called an alarmist and a Luddite (which, he said, were correct!). He brooded while his predictions came true and nobody cared.
Also 20 years ago, Postman noted that our nightly news programs were becoming a form of entertainment, much like a drama or a soap opera. Instead of unadorned news, we receive background music and witty repartee delivered by fashionably accoutered reporters. We find ourselves being amused and titillated ... by the news! In addition, forums staffed with experts deliver a steady glut of opinions and theories about controversial issues. Postman found that the average American viewer tends to accept everything at face value — especially if it is entertaining.
Postman decided to conduct an experiment with his friends. He began to tell them blatant lies, assuring them that the New York Times had found that eating chocolate éclairs at every meal would produce weight loss — or that CNN had announced last night that jogging actually reduced the jogger’s intelligence. He noted, with growing alarm, that he was rarely challenged. If the media gods said it, it must be true.
Back when 1984 arrived and did not bring the brutal oppression described in Orwell’s novel, many were relieved. However, it was Postman’s opinion that we were worried about the wrong book. We should have been looking for the danger signals predicted in Huxley’s Brave New World — a world in which people will come to love their oppressors and adore technologies that deprived them of the capacity (or the responsibility) to think. Instead of book burning, we would have a culture where people have voluntarily stopped reading altogether. In Huxley’s view, our technologies were obscuring truth and meaning in a sea of irrelevance. Instead of being enslaved, we would become trivial and self-absorbed, sitting like overly medicated babies, basking in pleasant warmth of the tube — what Harlan Ellison called “the glass teat.”
Shortly before Postman died several years ago, he wryly noted that all of his dire prophecies had come true. In his final years, he had become a popular speaker in European universities and seemed to view the death of American culture with resigned good humor. He enjoyed discussing the growing evidence that our culture embodies a grotesque mix of the superficial, the surreal and the irrelevant: “reality” shows, political cant, sitcoms, celebrity governors, steroid-enhanced athletes, celebrity murderers and serial killers.
He exaggerated, didn’t he? It’s not that bad ... is it?
I just put my earphones on — the ones that enable me to participate in the wonderful world of TV ... and we are off and running. Al Sharpton, Gov. Arnold S., an interview with a “cured homosexual,” a cloned goat, an interview with George Carlin about obscenity, Paris Hilton has been seen topless again; thousands starve in Africa, rumors claim that Michael Jackson recently attempted to buy an island; a plane crash in Peru; the new Scooby Doo movie reviewed. Stay tuned for raunchy good fun, riveting suspense and a documentary on teen-agers and meth .... So much to pick from.
Are we being told too much? Could we do with less? Do we still have the capacity to discern between what is meaningful and what is vacuous? Which do we really prefer?