02 Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death 📼
Tags: #neilpostman #culture #media #tv
As we're living through an age of complete distrust in everything tech, social, and mass media, it's important to remember how media and technology theorist Neil Postman had some spot-on (but often forgotten) critique that is very relevant in today's media-soaked environment. It goes back to 1985 in his brilliant book "Amusing ourselves to Death".
The book included lots of great ideas about television, media, and politics. But what I found most fascinating is his view on how commercial television's main goal is to keep us "Amused". It might be a bit misunderstood because it's not just about broadcasting 24/7 music videos and entertainment, it's about continuously finding ways to keep us "engaged". It's almost similar to what we blame social media for today; keeping us engaged by continuously grabbing our attention.
In "Amusing Ourselves to Death", Neil Postman's core problem with commercial television is that it functions primarily on providing amusement to gather and grow an audience. "Amused" might be a bit misunderstood because it's not just about broadcasting 24/7 music videos and entertainment, it's about continuously finding ways to keep us "engaged". This conflict of interest is what permanently changes the nature of communication, to the degree of not taking TV seriously. It's almost similar to what we blame social media for today; *keeping us engaged by continuously grabbing our attention and offering us endless streams of AI-optimised content and interrupted by all kinds of ads.
Neil Postman did a very good interview on C-SPAN back in 1988, here are some important points.
Why commercial TV (or any other ad-supported medium can't be taken seriously)
- Television is technology that has the capability of completely changing the culture (in additional books), exploring how TV is changing culture.
- This book is about how television changes our views to politics, religion, news and a bit around education. More of being a social critic, raising issues around problematic issues.
- He likes sports, but never watches television when it's serious. It's an embarrassment when respected journalists pretend that they're doing something serious. Finds it embarrassing.
- Why? It's embarrassing because the function of TV in America is to gather an audience which can be sold to advertisers, it should be pointed out that when radio first came to the scene, conservative observers like Herbert Hoover (secretary of commerce) didn't believe that it was possible that radio could be used for commercial purposes. He saw it as an education medium. But by the time television came along, it was well established that this would be used as an instrument for the advancement of corporate profits. So what TV (mostly in America) is an attempt to gather an audience for any reason.
- TV is unprecedented. In the past, audience would gather for specific reasons like speeches or events. TV doesn't do that, its job is to gather an audience, and it doesn't really care what it uses as the means to gather an audience. In the book, he discovered that American TV knows that the best way to gather an audience is to provide something "amusing" and it may be that TV may not be good for anything else. That applies to American commercial television. That's why when they do something serious, within the first 8 minutes they would start with a commercial. The question here is that how serious could it be if it can be interrupted within the first 8 minutes?
- That's why seriousness can't be achieved in commercial television because it changes the nature of communicated information.
- Amusement is extended to the way news is presented. Because of the news teller. The same applies to debates. It can not be taken seriously by an informed public.
- Secondly, it may even be that TV might not be a suitable medium for the communication of serious ideas. After all, an idea is sentences (language) and television isn't comfortable with language.
On time and amusement
- How come for a TV debate to be taken seriously when a candidate is given 3 minutes to answer a complex question?
- It's taking its values from show business.
- TV might be a window to the world, but it's a curious type of window. With different distortions and refraction. It presents a fragmented world. Example: More shooting in Beirut today, we see bodies, hear shots etc. So people know of Beirut, see a shooting in Beirut, but do they know the details behind that. Historical context? TV news doesn't care about that, it deals with visuals. TV executives ask for footage before everything else.
- Television's fundamental issue is not letting people talk. Shows will have 2-3 guests to keep amusements, have to stop every 2-3 mins for a commercial. Continuity gets disrupted.
- People who try to master this medium understand what circumstances make it difficult to master.
- Now, This. TV broadcasters came up with a new grammar, Now This is a special kind of conjunction that disconnects things from one another. That disconnect raises the question of what should audiences think about at the moment of the advertisement right after announcing terrible news.
- Neil asks what if that technique was used in a book. People would react negatively and think of the author thinking of them as fools.
- To a certain degree, people accepted that discontinuity is a feature of the medium.
- People don't accept advertising in movie theatre in the middle of a theatre, but people accept it in a TV context. The audience is conditioned to this kind of continuity.
- EU TV still has a lot of good people saying wonderful things. In America, it's questionable.
- It may well be, that although the American public knows of many things, but knows about very little. (supported by a survey done by Postman on Iran)
- What about VCRs?
- Federico Filini talking about the remote (zapper), which makes each viewer a director and an exhibitor. That changes the nature of TV views and makes the view impatient, because of the reduction of their tolerance span.
- About the VCR? Not clear. Can possibly change things to the better. In history of communication, printing press was invented in Germany in 1450, it took people about 70 years later to number the books after the invention. By numbering the pages, you change the function of the books. VCR maybe what changes the structure of network television. That might make TV a serious public form of communication.
- One has to ask what's happening with language. Jack Ellul (French philosopher) recently published a book "the humiliation of the word", he makes the point that one of the characteristics of new media (all) is to humiliate the word, where it moves away the peripheral of culture and the visual takes the centre.
- There are people who listen to talk, if it's good talk. If it stimulates their mind. Can that get you a mass audience? Unknown.
- Historically, some US presidential debates lasted 7 hours. Lincoln/ Douglas debates (can we imagine) audience listening to a 7-hour debate?) (Very interesting to see that kind of argument coming back with lengthy podcasts)
- Up until the 20th century, people suffered from a scarcity of information. One of the functions of school was to provide them with solid and important information that the students couldn't get outside the classroom walls. Now we have the opposite problem, we have information satiation.
- Knowledge isn't always the answer. Computer technology compounds this, we have a situation where people have this problem of certain type of information being too relevant for them to know.