Does Neil Postman Offer Us a Solution?
The past few articles – here and here – have dealt with Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I want to wrap things up there. Postman’s book covers the gamut. The statement from the back of his book sums things up for us regarding what he covers and what he believes.
More relevant than ever – the prophetic landmark work exploring the corrosive effects of electronic media on a democratic society.
We live in that digital, electronic age where media rules. The media is the message. It doesn’t matter what they tell us. What truly matters is how they disseminate information to society.
Television has habituated us to visual entertainment measured out in spoonfuls of time. But what happens when we come to expect the same things from our politics and public discourse? What happens to journalism, education, and religion when they too become forms of show business? Twenty years ago, Neil Postman’s lively polemic was the first book to consider the way that electronic media were reshaping our culture. Now, with TV joined by the Internet, cell phones, cable, and DVDs, Amusing Ourselves to Death carries even greater significance. Elegant, incisive, and terrifically readable, it’s a compelling take on our addiction to entertainment. (back cover)
One of the things that Postman notes in the latter portion of his book is related to politics and how that area of society is seen and understood. He says, “If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising.”
If you consider the fact that nearly everything we see on the television or movie screen is some sort of advertisement for some product, it then comes into clear focus. I’ve mentioned this before but years ago, the American Medical Association (AMA) started to put pressure on Hollywood to reduce the incidents of tobacco use and/or placement in television and movies. The AMA believed (and statistics and studies tended to support them), that the many incidents of smoking and tobacco usage or placement in these mediums tended to influence young people to start experimenting with cigarettes. Hollywood took the cue and began reducing the use of tobacco products in movies and television projects.
When someone goes to a movie today, especially an action-thriller like Batman vs. Superman, the ultimate goal of the studio is to recoup all expenses and make as much profit as possible. At least some of this is done with the use of marketing products that are connected to the movie. Kids who see this movie or others like it want to be able to go out and purchase toys, games, models, shirts, and the like that are related to that movie. In that sense then, every movie is one huge advertising campaign. It’s not that Hollywood wants to produce great movies that people remember and want to see numerous times. While they want to do that, the overall key is in the area of merchandising and overseas sales. This is where the majority of money is recouped.
Product placement in a Hollywood project is huge. Depending on the movie, some corporations are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to have their product deliberately placed in a scene where the audience sees it (even if in the background clearly), for several seconds. This will make them want to buy it if they see the hero or heroine with or using that same product. It’s all advertising.
Postman notes that by the time the average American reaches 40 years of age, he/she will have seen “well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives.” Every program on television has a “sponsor,” a company that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions, depending upon the program), to advertise their product during that show’s broadcast. Because of that, things have become very one-sided. While Postman does not condemn capitalism, he certainly understands and admits that some of these corporations have become so large, they are their own monopolies and because of that, can and do dictate to society and even to our government how things are to be done. This, he says, has destroyed public discourse as it is supposed to be. He even notes that because of commercials, people began to stop using prepositions and that began in the 1950’s. It’s even worse today. This has been done through substituting images for claims related to a product. It’s not even talking. It’s merely a progression of images with a bed of pleasant music underneath.
Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. By ‘accommodate,’ I mean that we accept them as a normal and plausible form of discourse. By ‘philosophy,’ I mean that the television commercial has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of communication that run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word. For one thing, the commercial insists on an unprecedented brevity of expression. One may even say, instancy. A sixty-second commercial is prolix; thirty seconds is longer than most; fifteen to twenty seconds is about average. This is a brash and startling structure for communication since, as I remarked earlier, the commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. (p. 130)
Postman compares the Orwellian view of society to the Huxleyan view. While most prefer Orwell’s dystopian view of the future, Huxley’s view is similar, but in some ways, markedly different. Postman sees the digital age through television as a threat to the existence of society as we have always known it.
Orwell quite reasonably supposed that the state, through naked suppression, would control the flow of information, particularly by the banning of books. In this prophecy, Orwell had history strongly on his side. For books have always been subjected to censorship in varying degrees wherever they have been an important part of the communication landscape. (p. 138)
We can easily agree with this because history tells us that this has been the case. Even more recently, books have been censored or banned because of the use of the pejorative “nigger” or even the less pejorative “Negro” as used in books by Mark Twain. Though the context is clear that these words were merely an accurate reflection of the way people thought at the time and not used to create tension between races, that didn’t matter. Political correctness wins the day too often. Postman, while noting that at least some of what Orwell predicted has certainly come to pass, he still prefers Huxley’s view on the matter.
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is re-defined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.
In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love-affair with television…By ushering in the age of television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future. (p. 155-156)
So after all is said and done, what is there to do to help regain society? Can anything be done? Is it completely hopeless? Postman answers the question.
…only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind, one of which is nonsense and can be dismissed almost at once; the other is desperate but it is all we have. (p. 161)
I appreciate Postman’s demeanor here. He isn’t pulling any punches. Society is in terrible danger of succumbing to the magnetic pull of digital technology. Have we come too far to retreat?
The desperate answer is to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem: our schools. This is the conventional American solution to all dangerous social problems, and is, of course, based on a naive and mystical faith in the efficacy of education. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to. Our schools have not yet even got around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. Indeed, you will not find two high school seniors in a hundred who could tell you – within a five-hundred-year margin of error – when the alphabet was invented…And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of television on their students. Stimulated by the arrival of the computer, they discuss it a great deal…
Sad, but true. The answer lies in the area of education and we could write article after article on why many home-schooled or private schooled students do far better than run-of-the-mill public schooled students. But the problem seems to have been exacerbated by all the social programs that have been introduced and made “mandatory” part of the learning day, with important things like learning to read taking a back seat.
…we are in a race between education and disaster, and (Huxley) continuously wrote about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistomology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
Entry filed under: Agenda 21, Atheism and religion, christianity, Cultural Marxism, Emotional virtue, eternity, Global Elite, Political Correctness, Politically Correct, Politics, Religious - Christian - End Times, Religious - Christian - Prophecy, Religious - Christian - Theology. Tags: amusing ourselves to death, brave new world, commercials, digital age, digital technology, electronic technology, Hollywood, huxley, huxleyan, neil postman, orwell, orwellian, technology, television.