I just finished reading the classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. I had mentioned it in two other reflections (here and here), but it’s one of those books where you read the title and the Wiki entry and you think that should suffice—especially as it was written almost 40 years ago, before the Internet and all our modern forms of electronic entertainment. But I was wrong. It is by far more profound than I could have imagined (hence why I’ll lead a book club of it in November).
While I won’t explore the whole book, perhaps the best part is Postman’s exploration of American history before telegraphy. The world was local then—there was no “News of the Day,” where you learned about hurricanes in New Orleans or fires in California, droughts in Madagascar or floods in Europe. At least not instantaneously. Instead, you read books and news pamphlets and the world unfolded more slowly. Sure, one could argue that we’re now in a global world, and we need to know about global events. But do we? Immediately? Or is it, as Postman suggests, ultimately useless trivia, or perhaps worse, tragedies and distractions (e.g. anything about celebrities) to keep you glued to your TV and the Internet (and the commercials that drive this whole system).* As Thoreau presciently noted, as quoted by Postman, “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” (How right he was: we still pay attention to the lives of the British royal family—now with its own Twitter feed.)
It was also fascinating to read how Americans were before television. Americans were highly literate (not just the literary elite), well-read, would attend lectures by writers, and could even sit in debates for seven hours listening to rational, well-argued debates by political candidates (who each had three uninterrupted hours to read their speeches).** It seems strange to even imagine this today when televised debates convey nothing but images.
And then, the telegraph tied the world together, and set the foundation for radio, television, and the Internet. And you know the rest: over time we became amused into a comatose state. Ultimately, as Postman starts the book with, we took the path of Brave New World rather than 1984, being controlled not through pain but through pleasure.
Amusing Ourselves on Hyperdrive
But what’s fascinating is how much further along we’ve gone down this path since Postman wrote his treatise in 1985. With our personal soma dispensers now always in our pockets (or in our hands) we’re in a constant state of entertainment/distraction. And COVID heightened this exponentially—locking us down and forcing us into our virtual worlds of entertainment even further.
But COVID also revealed something more: we will choose to be entertained over everything else. An article appeared last week in the New York Times about how, despite high and escalating COVID infection rates, Brits are heading to soccer matches—bumping shoulders with 60,000 others (seemingly mask free), going to concerts, even riding the Underground without masks. Here’s the photo the Times included:
As Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology and COVID expert, notes in the article, “We don’t seem to care that we have these really high infection rates. It looks like we’re just accepting it now—that this is the price of freedom.”
It’s surreal. Why can’t we just accept some constraints on our freedom to be entertained? It doesn’t bode well for climate change, of course. If we can’t stay home a bit more to prevent getting sick and dying, who actually thinks we’ll stay home to reduce the chance that other people far away will get hit by a hurricane and maybe die?
Of course one could argue that virtual amusement—somafication—might be the way to pacify and minimize frustrated consumer populations as we make the transition to low-carbon or perpetual-pandemic lifestyles, but it seems from the UK news that that’s not the case. (And certainly from a civics perspective, and a sustainability perspective that’s not ideal.)
Ultimately, we’ve been drugged rather than dragged into passivity. Between our sugary, lethargy-inducing diets;*** our round-the-clock entertainment; and our disconnection from (and broken chains of interdependence with) other human beings in our communities (and Gaia) we’ve become atomized and easily manipulated into a state of being, and needing to be, entertained.
It doesn’t bode well for the future—a future that while dismal, promises to at least keep us glued to our televisions, computers, and smartphones, and if we’re lucky, maybe even our VR headsets!
And Now This
I wanted to end this essay here, as I don’t really see much positive to end with. Truthfully, I don’t see people unplugging from electronic media willingly (myself included). Postman, recognizing that as well, suggested two admittedly weak solutions at the end of his book: first, making TV programs to help people understand how manipulative television is (in order to get them to stop watching). But if the programs are made well enough to do that, then they just become more entertainment. The Late Show, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight—all of these reveal the absurdities of television but do so in so entertaining a way that they make you want to keep tuning in, not throw your TV out your window.**** Postman called his first recommendation nonsense, and suggested schools might teach kids to be media conscious as his second. But viewing the state of schools today, that solution feels even more nonsensical than the first.
But maybe the Internet will fail, and we’ll return, over time, to books, and literacy. As John Michael Greer explores in Dark Age America, the Internet is heavily dependent on energy and high tech industry. It cannot be assumed that it can be sustained as climate change ravages the planet. We could return to broadcast TV if things crumble slowly, but then again we may instead find ourselves returning to good old books. And maybe over time our literacy and rational thinking skills will return. Of course that assumes we don’t burn all the books to either get warm or get revenge (on those ‘evil scientists’ or other scapegoats of the collapse), but some wise individuals will surely hide enough books to keep the lights of knowledge and wisdom glowing—hopefully glowing brighter than the TVs still playing working VHS tapes of old episodes of Friends.
*This essay is brought to you by Adblock Plus (no, not really). But this is a good time to bring Adblock up, because I’m not sure I’d use the Internet without it. It’s a free plug-in that removes nearly all advertising from your Internet viewing experience (including YouTube). It even works in other languages (with the right add-ons). What’s the catch? NONE. It’s freeware. The makers do ask you to keep ‘unobtrusive ads’ but you can turn that off in your settings. If you aren’t using it, I feel sorry for you.
**Here’s an important point to note that the systemic racism and sexism of the time meant that slaves, Indigenous peoples, and women were not part of this well-read public.
***I’m reminded of the amusing documentary Supersize Me, where Morgan Spurlock almost commits suicide by eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month. The viewer gets a look at how that much sugar, salt, fat, and calories not only changes Spurlock’s body, but his mind, and his mood.
****Indeed, John Oliver even has a segment called “And Now This.” In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman spends many pages deconstructing this ridiculous phrase (which I won’t ruin for you here).