Amused to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death, the seminal work of Neil Postman, seems to be finding its way back into the public mindset again, more than three decades after its initial release, due to the current relevancy of the author’s prophetic words. I only know about the book because of my longtime affinity for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters who wrote an entire album based off some of Postman’s prescient political predictions. In the Trump era, however, many of his previous criticisms about the role of television in politics and the end of public discourse are being re-examined. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse quotes Postman’s work numerous times in his new book The Vanishing American Adult, and The Atlantic recently published a piece about what Postman might have thought about our modern age. Intrigued by some of what I read in both the aforementioned texts, I decided to run over to the library and check out the book, looking for more specific insight into Postman’s ideas. After reading most of the text, it’s clear that while he and I never would have been friends, we do share some strikingly similar philosophies about the role of information and how the incessant flow of it may not be the best thing for our brains or our virtue. 

To give you an idea of what kind of guy Postman was, he hated television and he was deeply skeptical of people who had too much fun. Clearly, some of his old man tendencies run counter to my own personal values. Reading his work reminds me a bit of staying home sick from school and being lectured by my grandfather, who would kindly volunteer to stay with me while my parents were at work. I remember one time—when I was about seven—he wouldn’t let me get out of bed until I had finished an adult crossword puzzle from the newspaper, then when I cried because I couldn’t do it he told me I “lacked perseverance.” That really lit a fire under my ass. Postman’s book is titled Amusing Ourselves to Death because he thought that society in the eighties had become too concerned with entertainment and that a city like Las Vegas—a city I adore—embodied that national stain. Like I said, it’s clear that he and I wouldn’t have gotten along all that well. I didn’t always get along with my grandfather either for similar reasons, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love him and respect the hell out of him; especially because today I can see how those tough lessons built character. Looking back at Postman’s work now, I’m struck by certain observations that really hit home with me, especially at they pertain to our endless information cycle. 

One thing to know about Amusing Ourselves to Death is that it’s based on the premise that Huxley’s premonition about the future was—in the end—more accurate than Orwell’s. He wrote: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared is that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

Reading that gave me the chills. It’s everything that keeps me up at night distilled into a few sentences. I have this fear that soon no one will care about why a wine or whiskey is interesting. They'll want to know the bullet points and the reasons it will impress their friends, but not anything beyond that. There's too much to know these days, so can you just summarize it into a score? Is it good or bad? It goes on:

“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

And what did Postman blame for bringing us to this brave new world? The telegraph of all things! The first invention to bring people more information than they actually knew what to do with, at a speed so fast they didn’t have time to actually process and understand its importance. He wrote: “Prior to the age of telegraphy…what people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked.”

Can you imagine what Postman would have thought about the internet and social media in today’s world? Probably the same as my grandfather, were either of them still living today. Postman valued books, not just for their capacity to organize and present information, but also because of the time involved in both writing and reading them; time that was necessary to properly analyze, scrutinize, and understand meaning—“to discuss their contents and make judgements about their merit.”  He added: “The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.”

That's how wine and whiskey are often appreciated today, as quick data points and ten second summations. And then the kicker:

“To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.”

Reading this made me think of a question that I touched on the other day, albeit not nearly as eloquently, asking: what’s the point of information anymore? Do we want to actually enrich our lives through learning or is everything just a game to see who knows the most things? Is all of life just a giant trivia contest where people race to be first? Is it just one endless cycle of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me? Don’t tell me because I want you to know I already knew! If you tell me, you might think I didn’t know. But I did know. And if you wouldn’t have told me, I could have told you. And if I had told you first, you would have seen that I already knew. 

It’s about winning.

I’ve been just as guilty of that petty desire in my life as anyone, wanting to be the guy with all the answers; arguing for the sake of it. Maybe that’s why this issue bothers me so much. I’m embarrassed by my behavior as a shallow teen and now I have this giant chip on my shoulder as an adult. I was raised in the high school era of credentialism where the purpose of life was the accumulation of awards under a constant state of competition, incessantly and neurotically adding accolades to my college resume on an endless quest for validation. It led to nothing but entitlement for my generation, a horde of young adults thinking they were good at everything, questioning authority but unable to provide any real solutions or answers as to why they were doing it. That’s what I grew up thinking information was for: to distinguish myself and win the race. I saw that phenomenon continue while I was a teacher. Now the same tendencies have taken over the wine and spirits industry.

Postman’s summation was thus: “Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to use.”

Information was once something we looked for when we needed help or wanted answers, but today it’s often for our own amusement—hence the name of Postman’s book. It’s for crossword puzzles, Trivial Pursuit, and proving other people wrong. It’s for cocktail parties where we try to make ourselves look smart and appear educated.

Of course, like any good liberal, I’m only picking out the stuff from Postman’s book I agree with and ignoring the rest. The rest of his book criticizes people like me who love show business and stare at the TV all day long, ceasing rational thought while watching the lives of others unfold on “reality” programming. If I read too much into his words, I’d emerge with little self-esteem as Postman was suspicious of big personalities and people who use jokes to convey important information. He thought spiritual devastation would come from a smiling face rather than a hateful one. That last sentence may not be as applicable in today’s political environment, as we’ve quickly learned that today’s political leaders can have two faces, but he was right about one thing in today’s America: “When serious conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.”

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll