In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, he warns against the perils of television as a communication channel for serious content, and explores why typographic media should be preferred over visual in public discourse, especially in politics, education and religion. He gives examples of how “the medium is the message”, that is, how the channel a message is sent through shapes the message itself. He worries that visual media, television in particular, transforms every message into entertainment, void of context, serious content, or troubling information. He references the fiction in the dystopian worlds of “1984″ and “Brave New World”, to point out “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”. (The original foreword and the last chapter argues this eloquently). In other words, we are not suppressed by a surveillance state and dictatorship, but instead distracted by bread and circuses.
Postman’s argument has two main parts: The historical value and importance of the written word as a medium of communication for serious content and public discourse; and the distractions and lack of context in visual communication, especially with television tending to morph every message into brief bits of entertainment.
From typographic to visual media
In the first part of the book, he considers how politics in colonial and 19th century America was mostly conducted and presented through long public letters, or by today’s standards, very long public debates, stretching over many hours in front of local audiences. He is amazed by the attention-span the citizens at that time commanded, and how engaged they were in the politics and arguments of the various politicians. He claims many people at the time would have recognized famous politicians by their writing, but not necessarily by appearance, which is of course the opposite of today’s situation.
In further chapters, Postman looks at how first the telegraph and later the photography changed the media landscape, and how those media shaped the content they channeled through. He traces the beginning of the irrelevant and out-of-context news bits to the telegraph, where snippets from afar could awake as much emotion, if not insight, as local business and news. He continues with discussion about the photograph, and asserts that a picture contains no context but itself. Any additional context is from information surrounding it, or prior knowledge we inject into it.
The medium is the message
To illustrate how the medium shapes and constrains the message, he uses the example of smoke rings for communication: Although they can be used to send very brief messages, it is not possible to conduct a philosophical discussion through that medium. Similarly, Postman argues, television cannot be used to convey serious content, since the visual presentation demands most of the viewer’s attention, and the narration or discussion will tend towards short sound-bites. (As an example of this, look at a site like euronews.com, which transcribes the audio of most of their short video clips. It is surprising how little text, read in 10 to 20 seconds, which goes with a minute of video).
In addition, most public television is of course funded by advertisement. This directly interrupts and distracts any and all programming, but also dictates the content. The message must be optimized to maximize the number of viewers, and thus eyeballs on their ads. The result can only be one thing: entertainment. Thus, whether the content is news, politics, education or religion, the viewer can never be allowed to get bored, challenged nor offended, lest he skips to another channel.
Postman’s book was first published in 1985. In the 2006 edition, his son, Andrew Postman, points out why his father’s book is even more relevant now. Today, we are surrounded by visual content and entertainment, through the Internet; mobile phones; computers; never-ending TV station streams. Had Neil lived to see our world, he would probably have been even more shocked than he was back then, when an actor was elected US president in 1980.
What makes the book so approachable and readable, is its timeless message about the relevance of the written word for serious communication. Thirty-two years ago, the strongest opposing force was television, while today the Internet brings the same visual entertainment to large parts of the Western population. In fact, the lack of context have gone even further, with services like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit centered around streams of completely random pictures of irrelevant content, often from people we hardly know.
Recent political communication has taken this to a sinister level, when messages are now tailor-made based on a user’s profile. As a result, we might vote for the same party and candidate, but based on different promises automatically designed to appeal to our emotions. The choice of policy is based on the entertainment value of the candidate, or whether he seems like a guy we’d like to sit down for a drink with.
Today, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a must-read.