In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman promotes his basic premise that the rise of television is diminishing the importance of public discourse in society. This famous media-in-culture critic (or rather, culture-in-media critic) may have written this compelling critique of a televised society in 1985, but his assertions still prove to be pertinent in modern society and sometimes have even further implications for culture today.
What’s On the TV
In support for Postman’s recognition that media trivializes significant cultural conversations, he describes the short time devoted to important topics, especially seen in news reports (87). This perspective can be clearly identified in present society as well. First off, the topics that are covered by various stations may be interesting for the viewers, but not always the most crucial topic in terms of communal and worldwide welfare. For example, it is common to hear celebrity news mentioned more often than news of a current war. Additionally, anchors will spend a minute covering the increase of homicides in a city, and then quickly move over to a lighter topic like a football victory with a simple transition such as “in other news”. Also, Postman notes that the injection of commercials strip away the “serious” spirit of the news being discussed (87). The implications of these things are that people are becoming less able to fully rejoice or grieve in something. It seems that people are so accustomed to the brief segments of tragic news that many have lost the ability to be still and linger over the report they heard. This has further implications in the way many conduct themselves; when people hear of devastating experiences from a speaker or classmate, people will try to be respectful in how they respond, but not too many will allow themselves time to dwell on the news, let alone advocate on behalf of their new knowledge.
Also, Postman assembles an argument that people are more preoccupied by image than by exposition in the Age of Show Business (88). He would not necessarily claim that those in the televised culture is less intellectual than those that proceeded them, rather, that they are structuring their discourse differently in a way that is not as thoughtful (27). Postman supports his claim by describing how people seem to judge the quality of a television show more on the basis on its images rather than the messages it conveys (88). This can be seen today by the way many approach watching television. Most people turn to television when they are tired or bored; it appears that watching T.V. is a way to relax and disengage from the strains of a long day. However, this mentality demonstrates that watching television is a more passive activity. If the greater population regarded television as a platform for high discourse, they would approach their viewing with alertness and steady observance. In the age of print, it was necessary to read all works with sharp focus, otherwise the people would lack comprehension. However, much of current television is easy to follow and therefore does not require very intentional concentration.
Living Off the Headlines
Additionally, Postman’s assertion that “we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed” (107, 108) has much validity. He supports his statement by recognizing how many people are unfamiliar with Iranian culture, politics, and history, even though most have a strong opinion about the “Iranian Hostage Crisis” (107). His point can absolutely be identified in today’s society. It appears that nowadays, people are spending less and less time developing the depth of their understanding of the world, and instead are living by headlines and wikipedia excerpts. The implications of this is the growth of an even more passionate society of individuals who know little of their subjects. This could be seen in part at the Invisible Children campaign three years ago where people were traveling all over the nation, sleeping on the cold streets to raise awareness of child soldiers in Uganda. However, what many failed to realize is that the information they were promoting and zealously speaking out about was outdated, and that the situation in Uganda and Gulu was very different at that point. People had heard some of the past news or had seen the Invisible Children documentary, but many who were voluntarily freezing on the Chicago streets had not looked further than the short film. This is dangerous because many people believe themselves to be well-educated, and even act on that education, when, in actuality, they are truly ignorant.
Another argument Postman poses is focused on the realm of education. He notes that “’Sesame Street’ does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television” (144). He supports his assertion by describing how people learn by what they do; so, if a child is not doing anything but being entertained while watching television, they will continue to expect that when approaching their other learning as well (144). Therefore, Postman is basically declaring that “educational television” is actually doing a disservice to students who are not receiving a similar style of teaching within their classrooms. It is true that they are learning much while watching television, but their minds are being trained to consume education in a way that is inconsistent with most schooling. Regarding the present times, the majority of schoolwork students are currently doing still focuses on print: students are required to read books, study textbooks, follow powerpoints, and write papers. However, these are youth that are also growing up on television and are being influenced by its medium. Therefore, one must question which factor must be changed: should schools raise awareness about the effects of television as Postman would argue, or further, to even discourage its viewing? Or must schools recognize the shift in society away from a print culture into a televised culture, and adapt to fit its form?
Also, Postman contends that “television has achieved the status of ‘meta-medium’ -an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well” (78, 79). Society has allowed, even promoted, the priority of television in life. Postman argues that many do not even question the biases that different stations project (79). It is no longer an odd piece of technology; it is welcomed inside almost everyone home today. However, it is not just that people learn cultural cues from what they see on the television, but that their grounds for epistemology even come from television. Many rely on the TV to feed them news, demonstrate the latest fashions, and update them on current society. However, a lot of people are not questioning enough of the perspective of the show or station they are viewing. Many assume that if the same topics are covered in the news, then there is a sort of objectivity that goes along with basic education of world events. However, many fail to recognize the emphasis placed on certain topics or political campaigns. Passively entering into the consumption of television news is dangerous, especially when it is often the only source consulted on a subject. The implication is that if people do not take the initiative to research their news from multiple sources,they will most likely adopt the philosophies and prejudices of a certain station.
Taking Life In Bites
In addition, Postman points out that through news shows and radio broadcasts, people assume that they can take “the measure of the world in twenty-two minutes” (113). When people assume that they can learn all about a country, book, person, or story in a few minutes, they trivialize the significance of that subject or being. The implications of this are that society now regards it largely dull and unpopular to invest much time learning about something well. This quickened and abbreviated approach to society can be seen in many online advertisements and TV infomercials nowadays; they are many promotions endorsing that people can learn guitar in only five days, or that one can learn a foreign language in a week. It appears that people are becoming more obsessed with the shortcuts in life. Taking the time to read an entire book, study in depth all the notes in music, or to spend years in another country to learn the culture and language seems unappealing for the current generation because it would “take too much time”. Younger people are less interested in being deeply informed and more interesting in how little knowledge they can pass with while still appearing cultured.
Through Neil Postman’s book, he assembles many arguments that demonstrate how television is a disadvantage for society, especially in terms of minimizing serious topics, restructuring epistemology, learning about the world, affecting education, falsely acting as if it provides the answers to all questions, and devaluing the importance of richly learning a subject. Postman’s assessment of television’s effects on culture in each of these areas has been proven correct even decades later to this point in present society, often with even further implications.