Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
If you’re only going to read one book this year, it should be Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
That being said, I hope you’ll read many more books than this. But if you have to make a choice based on which book will provide you with some means for understanding American culture and the dysfunctionality we all seem to recognize yet have no means for remedying, this book is the one.
Postman’s premise is that a fundamental shift has occurred in communication culture in the past century or so. He identifies three such major shifts through all of human history, which should give you an idea of how profound he thinks this current one is. The first shift was from an oral to written culture, something he pegs in the time of the great Greek philosophers. The second shift was from hand-written to typeset communication in the early 16th century, something that facilitated Martin Luther’s successful – and fast – dissemination of his theology. The third one is from a book culture to a media culture, a process that Postman sees starting with the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century, and accelerated into reality with television in the 20thcentury.
Sounds riveting, doesn’t it?
But what if how we take in information shapes not just what we pay attention to, but what our capacity for paying attention becomes? What if it affects not just what we think, but how we are capable of thinking in the first place? And what if what we think about is fundamentally isolated from both our willingness and ability to act on it because of how we receive our information?
If it sounds heady, it is. But it’s also important.
It remains important 25 years after the book was written and published. What concerned Postman about television would undoubtedly give him nightmares today (were he alive) in terms of all the various media that further fracture and fragment our attention and thinking. Television was a single media. Now we have a plethora of devices to deliver to us a constant stream of entertainment. Focus becomes increasingly difficult for any of us to maintain over any period of time.
Postman begins and ends his book with reference to two great 20thcentury authors who offered us peeks into possible dystopian futures. George Orwell is the one most of us are more familiar with. His terrifying book 1984, as well as his chilling book Animal Farm painted pictures of how totalitarianism can maintain power, and how it can come by that power in the first place. These books have been compulsory reading for many junior and senior high school students for decades. Warning citizens of the dangers of totalitarianism was important during the Cold War, and remains so today.
But Postman suggests that it is not Orwell’s vision of the future that we are actually in danger of, but rather a future envisioned by a lesser known author – Alduous Huxley. In his book Brave New World, Huxley posits a future where control is not maintained by force, but by entertainment and amusement. People are supplied with pleasant drugs and encouraged to engage in whatever behaviors suit their fancy. They are manipulated not by coersion, but by their own interests in self-amusement. Huxley imagined that people who are allowed to do what they want and enjoy themselves are not people who are going to be particularly concerned about the Big Picture of politics and culture and social engineering. So long as their bubbles of pleasure remain intact, they pose no threat to the establishment. Postman suggests that America is far more likely to succumb to this dystopian future than Orwell’s. It isn’t the Communists that turned out to be our greatest threat. We have met the enemy, and he may indeed be us.
Sound familiar at all? Know anyone (yourself included) who eschews politics and religion in favor of making themselves happy? Know anyone that is too disgusted with what they see going on around them to bother getting involved in it? Know anyone who doesn’t see the point in going to church, but prefers their own private ideas about God and the universe?
Buy and read this book. Share it with your friends. Talk about it in your congregations. It’s that important and that useful.
My one complaint with the book is that Postman offers no real alternatives. While agreeing that technology and media is here to stay and we can’t simply go Amish to avoid it, he doesn’t have much to suggest in terms of how we come to grips with this massive shift in communication. Human beings are remarkably adaptable, and we obviously dealt with the first two communication shifts. We will deal with this one as well. But it’s a learning curve that is painful – and perhaps most painful to congregations. How many congregations do you know of where people under the age of 30 are a decided minority, or not accounted for at all? Is this partly due to a shift in communication that the Church has not figured out how to deal with?
The latter is well beyond the scope of this book, but the book provides readers with some ways to describe the fragmentation in thinking, focus, and action that seem to be prevalent in our culture. How we respond to it and cope with it is for us to figure out.