Why should we care about 1970’s Television?


Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of many works from the latter half of the 20th Century which bemoans what he calls the “Age of Show Business,” or what other people have called the culture of television.  Why should we care about this today?  The general argument of these books is that TV is intentionally shallow and vapid, playing to the lowest common denominator of it’s audience, therefore everyone who watches television will be shallow and vapid.  Although similar in arguments to many of these types of works Dr. Postman’s unique contribution is that he makes a striking political argument about the interaction of television and our political will.  Why is this work important in an age when television is becoming less and less the center of our culture?  Why does this work stand out from all the others of it’s ilk?  It is because Dr. Postman tries to convince us that our culture (that is to say our entertainment) determines our political behavior and robs us of our free will!  Interestingly he wraps his arguments around a sort of prophetic competition between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which lends a sense of depth to his work.  This also allows him to use literature (which he views as vastly superior) to criticize TV.

Almost the entire first half of this work is a defense of literature in which he provides his rational for why literature is vastly superior to television (and by extension more modern forms of video media that are accessed via the internet).  Or as he says “I am not making a case for epistemological relativism.  Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them.  Indeed, I hope to persuade you that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”  Literature, or as he often calls it “typography” produces a sophisticated consumer of information because it forces the user to be an active participant while television is an “idiot’s delight” because it asks nothing but passivity from it’s users.  These are common arguments that can be found in many works of the time, for example see Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” among others.

The real value of this work lies in the second half in which Dr. Postman gives us the meat of his argument, that “in the Age of Television we have less to fear from government restraints than from television glut; that, in fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America; and that, therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains from where they once were.”[1]  This is not some nefarious plot to take power, simply a function of how television as big business works.  While in the past America’s political culture consisted of reading Thomas Pains “Common Sense” or reading a transcript of the 1850’s Lincoln-Douglas debates today Americans watch 30 second political commercials.  But where others criticize this as the “dumbing down” of America Dr. Postman goes a step further and sees this as a new “ideology”.  In the “Age of Show Business” for the average person the very structure of political arguments have changed, they are visual, emotional, commercial and shallow.  Citizens are controlled by the arguments because they are passive consumers rather than active participants.  It is an “unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation, But is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition.  Only compliance.”  This is not Marshall McLuhan’s the medium is the message, this is the concept that the message is controlled by the type of media that delivers it.  Not just the ideas, but the texture, the emotions and the ways of expressing arguments.  Dr. Postman is not worried about Orwellian Newspeak because he does not see a malevolent force controlling the people, but rather a Huxleyan dystopia in which people have ceded their intellect to the mode of the media.  I say “mode” rather than “control” because his point is not that people’s ideas are being controlled as you might think would happen in an authoritarian regime, but that the texture of peoples ideas follows the pattern set forth by the media.  Since this pattern is inferior to what preceded it, so will our culture be inferior to what preceded us.

It has been 35 years since the first edition of this book, but it is more important than ever.  Though the internet was in it’s infancy and YouTube did not exist when this was written the pattern of visual media was being established by television.  Though their are many differences between then and now few have explored the effect of media on consumers in the way that this work does.  It is subtle though not understated, it warns us that we must pay attention to the ways that we consume our media if we do not want to be consumed by our media.

———-[1] Chapter 9 Reach Out and Elect Someone

The Good

The writing is clear and direct, he uses phrase such as “The point is” and “I mean to say”.

Ideas are placed in context which provides helpful background information.

His passion for the topic show through.

The Bad

This is more of an exposition than an academic work so he provides no chain of logic to build his arguments.

He has a strong religious bias which might turn some people off.