Booby Books: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

Every “Booby Book” is chosen for its ability to educate. Perhaps the area where most of us need to be educated is that of self-awareness, for it is one of the few things we as individuals can affect, change, or correct.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is the author’s thoughtful gift to you, the reader. Rather, it is two gifts. The first gift is a revelation about how you came to be who you are, and the second gift is how we became the modern society, or civilization, we have become. Written in the 1980s it is, if anything, more relevant today than ever before.

In his own words, it details “the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendency of the Age of Television”. Of course, we’ve been told for generations now that TV is bad for us in various ways, both physically and mentally. Thus, his central theme may turn you off. Don’t let it. You were raised in an age of televisions, as were your parents in all likelihood. You can’t understand yourself unless you understand the environment that shaped you, and nothing has had so great an effect upon a civilization than television.

The Booby isn’t suggesting that Mr. Postman intends to somehow turn back the clock, and make TV go away. Technologies simply can’t be asked to go away. However, the author at least shows us what we’ve lost now that we’ve largely abandoned one technology (namely, the printed word) for another (the broadcast image).

It is here where we discover the forces that moulded us, and created the world we see around us. Before the broadcast image, information was ingested by reading. Reading is hard: it’s work. The discoveries one makes by reading tend to the complex. It is not purely entertainment. Yes, there has always been pulp fiction, and low-brow reading of every kind, but even that is, to some extent, work.

Television is a medium of images. You do not have to work for them. They come to you. It is hedonism, pure and simple. We watch what gives us pleasure, and we ignore that which requires effort or patience. To quote the author:

But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format… The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

The reader might object and point to news, documentaries, or various such forays into the supposedly educational. But your objections are are rendered moot in the author’s view. He shows that even these examples are offered as entertainment, since in the a world of stimulating images knowledge must always play second-fiddle to entertainment.

It is for this reason that Mr. Postman argues, quite convincingly, that any content committed to a shallow medium, meant to stimulate and entertain, must itself become shallow, stimulating, and entertaining.

Crime stories, as one example, captivate us, tantalize our emotions, and are offered daily for our insatiable consumption. But not just any crime stories will do. They must be chosen with an audience in mind. It has been shown over and over, for example, that this genre’s most coveted demographic – namely, suburban white women – doesn’t want to see stories about pandemic violence in inner city black neighbourhoods. They largely prefer stories which feature other, familiar-looking suburban white women… or even better their daughters, as victims. The networks oblige.

It is for this reason, of course, that nightly news and crime documentaries spend years covering cases like Natalee Holloway, Jon Benet Ramsey, or Casey Anthony. The stabbing of a homeless urban addict over an unpaid drug debt, meanwhile, simply does not capture the interest of the audience. It’s true that the latter type of murder is by orders of magnitude more common than murders of suburban white girls, but such stories are simply not what the targeted viewers want to see. Those stories are thereby unimportant.

To again quote the author, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health. 60 Minutes, Eye-Witness News and Sesame Street are.”

So reader, what do you think is important? And where and how did you form that idea? Is it really important, or does it simply make you feel important (i.e. entertain you)? Could it be that much more important things can be found by labouring through the pages of a classic Amusing.jpghistory tome, or reading freely available statistical reports?

These are the questions that must be asked, particularly of ourselves. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a disturbing look into the mirror for each and every one of us. So remember, reading is hard, and so, too, is self-discovery. But from self-discovery we can find self-improvement, and that, too, is hard.

This book can provide a good start.




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