Home Bookend - Where reading meets review Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – Neil Postman

by Venky

(Image Credit: Penguin Books)

Lewis Mumford, in his seminal book on the invention of clocks – Technics and Civilization– concluded that the clock had the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus ‘nourishing the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.’ Social critic, media theorist, and author Neil Postman goes one step further and compares the invention of the clock to a phenomenon where “moment to moment, it turns out is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.”

Neil Postman was a clairvoyant. In a searingly prescient fashion, he predicted the potential and perils of the visual media when internet was not even a twinkle in the eye. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman undertakes an informed and blistering analysis of the trajectory of public discourse in the age of show business, show business here being primarily and entirely restricted to the business of television.

Postman warns his readers that the future of the world would take its hue and colour not from the ominous dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984, but from the plentiful excesses that is the preserve of a controlled, inflicted, dangerous and obliviously pre-occupied populace in the Brave New World, a magisterial tour de force authored by Aldous Huxley.

Postman alleges that with the inundation of images that changes in the blink of an eye, accompanied by an unceasing scroll bar elaborating the aesthetic and the asinine with equanimity, the news of the day is a ‘figment of our technological imagination. Every aspect of truth-telling is after all a direct function of the media of communication. As the world transitions from ‘reading is believing’ to ‘seeing is believing,’ print media is slowly being reduced to a ‘residual epistemology.’

Postman explains the difference between thinking in a word-centred culture and thinking in an image-centred culture by taking recourse to a fundamental yet powerful thought experiment. He urges his readers to think of a few prominent figures such as Richard Nixon or Albert Einstein. The immediate manifestation in the mind of the thinker would inevitably be an image, a face, a picture or more likely than not a snippet or a photograph as displayed in a television screen. And absolutely nothing in terms of words either uttered by the individuals or written about them.

The dominance of the Print media prevailed in what Postman terms The Age of Exposition. An age where all informed discourse was animated by typography, a high degree of value was placed on reason and order, and where there was a great degree of tolerance for delayed response. However, as we inexorably began to shift towards the era of television, the Age of Exposition was replaced by the Age of Instant Gratification or ‘The Age of Show Business.’

Now with television, knowledge and intellect is emblematic of knowing of lots of things, but not knowing about them. What a stupendous revelation! Wonder what Postman would have made of echo chambers, sock puppets, and cultural, technological, and political polarization. With television we have reduced the world of information to a trivial but riveting game of peek-a-boo. Incidents, occurrences, and events appear on the screen at pace only to disappear with even greater pace to make way for the next candidate. Value is substituted by entertainment.

A direct corollary that stems from the above notion is not that television offers us with an ensemble of entertaining subject matter, but all subject matter is appropriated as entertainment, thereby altering or at times even diluting the essence of the issue under consideration. Spending five minutes viewing the intolerable cacophony that constitute political debates that are played endlessly on myriad television channels on loop these days would provide splendid monument to Postman’s assertion.

The zenith of televised entertainment was reached when in Phoenix, a triple bypass surgery was performed on a patient called Bernard Schuler. The surgery was televised live by almost fifty television stations throughout the country. There was even a live minute by minute commentary explaining to the viewers the intricacies attached to the procedure. The highlight of the entire fiasco and the icing on the cake was when Mr. Schuler optimistically waxed eloquent about the potential outcome of his surgery. “There is no way in hell they are going to lose me on live TV.” Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have struggled to conjure this scenario!

Anchors and news casters inform their viewers about natural disasters without appearing to grasp the enormity of the actual calamity and the viewers in turn are careful not to ‘tarnish’ the information with a sense of imposed reality. There cannot be permitted ‘contamination’ of any sort as that in turn would necessitate a totally different reaction from the news caster, a reaction that would be anathema to entertainment.

Information when prepackaged as entertainment finally results in misinformation. Canadian American journalist and writer Robert MacNeil said, “Television is the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” While both Huxley and Postman would have accorded their complete consent, I am left to ponder what Huxley or Postman would have made of a world blanketed with and enveloped by fake news!

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