Archive: November 14th, 2008

Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death

[Readings] (11.14.08, 5:48 pm)

Neil Postman is an interesting figure. His book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” can be read not only as a vicious attack on television, but also on any form of media or mass communication. The style and tone of his writing makes him seem old fashioned and stuffy. He comes off as hostile towards media and dismissive of anything that takes people away from that nostalgic golden age where people actually read books. It is easy for those of us who grew up with television, video games, and, more recently, the internet, to read Postman and imagine counterexamples to all of his arguments. No, we might say, media has a positive role in our lives, and we have been made stronger for it. Such an argument is valid, certainly, but it is reacting against Postman’s words alone and not some of the deeper themes that lie underneath them. Postman might say that television affects us negatively, we might claim that it affects us positively, but the point is that it affects us nonetheless.

The claims about affect fall within the larger frame of technological determinism, but there is something more present in Postman’s book. In order to take control over media, so that we can use it positively, we must understand its agenda. Following from McLuhan, Postman argues that each medium has an agenda. To not be manipulated by this agenda, we must be aware and critical of it. This concept has been called media literacy. Digital media is not only a medium of its own, but is a conduit, a channel for many other media and systems, each of which have their own agendas. Specifically I am interested in simulation, and thinking about the agendas of simulations, which are often closed, like television, concealing their agenda beneath their surfaces. I want to consider a practice of simulation literacy, where the methods, assumptions, and epistemology of a simulation can all be put under scrutiny.

The Medium is the Metaphor

Before the book begins, Postman presents an analogy which sets the tone and climate for the rest of the book. He compares two authors, Orwell and Huxley, who wrote of terrible dystopias. Their visions both present worlds where people are controlled, but through very different means. Orwell is generally more widely recognized, and his dystopia 1984, presents a world where books are burned and history is rewritten. Huxley’s Brave New World is one in which there is no need to burn books or rewrite history, because no one reads anyway. Postman sums them up neatly: “In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” One of these worlds is implicitly the direction that the future is heading. The underlying assumption behind this is that we are slouching toward some dystopia anyway.

Postman’s writing comes across as extremely dated, as though he is appealing to some idyllic period in which spectacle was never a factor in communication. There are a couple of examples of how media has restricted the range of what is possible. A presidential candidate must necessarily now be telegenic. This is definitely true, though. Once media has been introduced, it must be accounted for. By virtue of this, media affordances have restricted what is or may be possible. Behind the moralizing, this restrictive nature of media is still real.

There is a religious element to Postman’s objections to television which is hardly surprising. The relationship between the iconography of media and the religious sin of idolatry reveals a deep spiritual unease with the representational power of media. By virtue of its semiotic nature, media and technology have the power to transform icons and images, and this has a profound affect on thinking and conceptualization.

Media as Epistemology

Postman gives a review of the requirements of reading and print culture. This idea translates directly into the notion of print literacy. The first of these requirements are physical and very basic, but they give way into deeper and deeper requirements of comprehension and analysis, which are not even verifiable. It is impossible to measure whether someone truly understands a text, especially when connected to the vast cultural network of meaning. This is literary intelligence at its highest level, and it is by no means easy. To claim that someone is literate means to go beyond the basic ability to understand sentences, but to also go to these deeper roots of making sense of the text, and knowing how to make sense of the text. The practice of meaning making has no set measure or procedure.

I raise these issues because they expose that print-intelligence or print-literacy is not some simple or easy idea. This direction undercuts Postman’s work somewhat, as he means to explain that this form of intelligence was common before television. It is arguable that this may be the case historically, but it is not the case generally. Thus, instead of being a conflict between types of media, we can view Postman’s argument as a conflict over literacy.

The Typographic Mind

The key characteristic of the typographic medium is exposition. Exposition is a mode and methodology. It is the epistemology of the literary medium. “Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; a tolerance for delayed response.” (p. 63)

I would argue that the idealization of this is somewhat fallacious. The “era of print” certainly had its share of spectacle, irrationality, and logical falsehoods. The ideas here are still important, though. Exposition is still a value of print, and it is an affordance.

The Peek-a-Boo World

Telegraphy enabled instantaneous communication, but also came with decontextualization of information. Postman argues that it inflicts a kind of impotence on the communicated content. Because it is deprived of context, he claims that the new information ceases to be meaningful or relevant. This is unfair. If we were impotent in the age of the telegraph, then we were impotent before. This also comes with the implicit assumptions that the receivers of information are wholly passive. Postman argues that the information-action ratio was greatly diminished after telegraphy, which may be true, but a diminished ratio does not indicate a reduction in the actual action itself.

The heart of the matter is that television has become a myth in the sense of Barthes. It is invisible, unquestioned, and only accepted. Postman’s idea is that the communicated artifacts of television should seem bizarre and not natural. The world seen through television seems natural, even though it is false. Postman’s goal is to make visible the epistemology of television, to expose the transformational process so that it is denaturalized. This reverberates with Barthes agenda in Mythologies, to reveal how mythologies are present and prevalent and influential even though they are invisible.

We can make a comparison to games and internet culture, but by virtue of being new media, they are perpetually under analysis and criticism. They have not yet become totally naturalized, but, some conventions are moving in that direction. Postman’s analysis of television is holistic and reductive, but exposing epistemology is key in developing new literacy.

The Age of Show Business

Good sound byte here: “Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold.” (p. 84) Later, “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted, or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” (p. 87) This is in comparison to print, whose supra-ideology would be exposition. It is ambiguous what, if any, supra-ideology computation must have.

“Now . . . This”

The argument here goes to support the literacy theme. Things viewed on television, the news specifically, seem implicitly credible. Because things are presented accurately, they are understood as truth. Books still can and do this, using all manner of fallacies. Postman seems to imply that, as television is new and immediate, it is more credible. Maybe this relates to media maturity. Alternately, the argument seems to be that since entertainment is the content of television, truth is irrelevant. This reverberates with McLuhan and Raymond Williams.

The Huxleyan Warning

There is an argument here, not for literacy exactly, but for awareness and skepticism. Technology is ideology. “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.” (p. 157) The argument is steeped with technological determinism, but is still compelling. Introduction of the alphabet changes culture at a cognitive level, and instantaneous communication produces a social and cultural revolution. This claim sounds like the types of claims, alternating between doomsaying and social revolution, that the internet would have on culture. An argument against Postman is that culture has motivational and self regulating forces of its own. While it may be affected, it still works to regulate itself. This counterargument is also valid, but the culture is still changed. Without awareness, it may not regulate itself positively.

To produce this awareness, Postman explains that we must change how we engage with television. “The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may be fairly said that we have yet to learn what television is.” The focus on information brings Postman’s critique straight into digital media.

Further: “In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awarenss of the structure and effects of information, though a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

Reading Info:
Author/EditorPostman, Neil
TitleAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
ContextPostman's idea of media literacy connects to the idea of simulation literacy.
Tagsspecials, media traditions, media theory
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon