Book ReviewsDigital Play

Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

In this book, Neil Postman talks through the impact that modern media is having on our culture. It is a public discourse in the age of show-business.

Although the book was published in 1980’s, long before computers became a ubiquitous item within our household, his insights into how digital technology (in the form of television and media-based entertainment) shifts our cultural norms, the way we think, the way we process information and how we view the world around us.

This is a must-read/listen to for anyone exploring the world of CyberPsychology. It provides a useful back-story to how we got to where we are now.

It also helps to shape some of the thinking we should be using when viewing how the ongoing Digital revolution is changing who we are as individuals, and as a society.

It provides a looking glass to view how our favourite gadgets and Apps may impact our present and future selves.

A snippet from the opening sections of this book is probably the most relevant to our constantly changing digital technological world: 

‘People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centred to image-centred might profit from reflecting on this Mosiac junction. But, even if I am wrong in these conjectures it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition, that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the cultures intellectual and social pre-occupation’.

These two interviews (part 1 and part 2) give a taste into the essence of Neil Postman’s arguments within the book.  

Some insights from these videos:

  • People mostly watch television – and they like to watch dynamic, ever changing, exciting images. The average duration of a shot on a network television show is 3.5 seconds.
  • Television has developed along lines that not only accommodate the biases of the visual medium, but the interests of the audience. It wants pictures, it doesn’t want talking heads.
  • TV executives or networks did not set out, in an organised and systematic way, to alter the way people will express themselves in politics, religion, education, etc. Rather, what has happened is that a new technology that tends to supress, undermine and otherwise degrade what we call literate, analytic, rational discourse.
  • The visual and entertainment-oriented TV has become the centre of Western Culture and has degraded public discourse. It may be possible, through some sort of social policy, for us to minimise or mitigate some of the worst effects of the situation.
  • It is the machinery itself that has changed the world of communications.
  • There is a distinction between a technology and a medium. A technology is to a medium as brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which we put the physical apparatus.
  • From a technological determinist perspective – television will give us a new kind of culture, as did the printing press.
  • Alternatively, people are aware of how technology has been used, what sort of medium it has become and, through education, alert people to the sort of problems that a medium has brought about, and how to make the necessary changes.
  • With the introduction of the computer, American’s are going in to their usual stance in the face of a new technology – which is with a great deal of enthusiasm without much discussion around what its affects will be.
  • If there was some serious dialogue, as part of the education of children, there would be an awareness of how the definitions of debate have changed, the definitions of knowledge have changed.
  • At this point, television has become the command centre of the culture. People go to television.
  • Our habits have been changed and our perception apparatus has changed – we are seeing the world in fragments now and kind of a Las Vegas stage show.
  • There is a logic to a technology, that it asks to be used in a certain way. This logic has tremendous force to it. To the extent that we understand what that logic is … then at the very least we could prepare ourselves to accommodate [the bias from the media]. If [for] nothing else than to protect ourselves through the education of the young, through the seductions of the eloquence of televisions charm.
  • The issue with the television is that it has become the command centre of the culture and moved all other media to the periphery of the culture.
  • Most people don’t see television as problematic. They don’t see that it raises some political or epistemological issues.
  • American education, at this point, has been largely indifferent to the intellectual and social issues that the new media raise. One can say the same the same thing about computer technology … Schools have accepted computer technology without, very often, raising the question for youngers, about what intellectual or epistemological or social effects and consequences such technology might have on the culture.  
  • Looking at the history of technology – technology does have a way of taking over a culture and giving direction to the social institutions of the culture, and even the cognitive habits of the people in the culture.
  • The forces of technological change are enormously powerful and underestimated almost universally by everyone, who like to say, ‘television is neutral, it’s what we do with it that will matter’. Nothing can represent a technological naivety more than that kind of remark. On the other hand, I do believe that people are not powerless – especially institutions are not powerless.
  • The late Jessica Savage … remarked once that ‘viewers have come of age in the 80’s’. She said they have ‘visceral smarts’. Through the viscera they can tell what is true and has merit and what is good. Does this mean that the viscera has replaced the brain as our central organ of knowing? If that is the case, then the question about our humanistic values is even more terrifying than otherwise. That is to say that … our humanistic values have at the centre our reason, and reason has to do with the word.  
About Neil Postman:

The late Neil Postman was a professor in Media Ecology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education.

Although some may refer to him as a ‘luddite’ as he comes across as being rather negative towards technology. However, it would be more accurate to say that he was an observer and commentator on the historical changes technology made to society and cultural identity – i.e. the ecology (and probably the anthropology) of new media.

What he would have made of smartphones, smartphones and social media would have been a rather interesting guess.