Neil Postman was an author, academic and media critic, best known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). According to Wikipedia:
The book’s origins lay in a talk Postman gave to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984. He was participating in a panel on George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the contemporary world. In the introduction to his book, Postman said that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, than by Orwell’s work, where they were oppressed by state control. . . .
Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from that offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss, thereby voluntarily sacrificing their rights. Drawing an analogy with the latter scenario, Postman sees television’s entertainment value as a present-day “soma“, by means of which the citizens’ rights are exchanged for consumers’ entertainment.
The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that “form excludes the content,” that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for the aforesaid reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and “news of the day” becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
Postman’s thinking draws not only on Orwell and Huxley but McLuhan, too. McLuhan in particular was fixated on how the nature of the medium drives, or is, the message.
Postman died in 2003. As this NGram suggests, his influence was highest toward the end of his life, and references to him start to drop off quite a bit after the mid-1990s.
In some ways the loss of interest is odd. After all, Postman’s argument is skeptical of the beneficial effects of new media and that notion is timely today. Indeed, Postman’s focus was largely on TV and now our attention spans have been further shortened by all of the new media made possible by the internet since his death.
Perhaps one of the reasons Postman is viewed as less relevant today is that his focus, per the above, is too much on the soma qualities of the press. Huxley suggested that entertainment was all that it would take to effect social control. By contrast, Orwell’s view was that totalitarian regimes were cognizant of actual political issues and the need to communicate about them–that’s why they lied, and forced the population to accept the lies. While Postman is no doubt correct that we live in a more pleasing world than 1984, does his emphasis on media’s simple narcotizing role miss something important?
Take How to Watch TV News, a book Postman and Steve Powers wrote in 1992.
It is filled with interesting insights about the prestidigitation of network news enterprises. In line with his Huxley orientation, though, Postman’s view is that the sin of the networks is that they take shaggy reality and force it into interesting narratives, just to keep the masses narcotized. Wake up!
But wake up to what? There is essentially no mention in the book of the notion of media bias–that is, that the media are actually delivering narrative content about real issues, aimed to persuade.
Note the tripling of the use of the term “media bias” since Postman’s era.
Fast forward four years from the book. It is 1996 and Fox News makes its first appearance. Billed as “fair and balanced” is proves to be anything but. It is as partial and biased as . . . what? Well, the network news, that’s what.
To use a phrase popular with a group as diverse as Orwell, Paul Krugman, Steve Sailer and Andrew Sullivan, it was as though Postman could not see the nose in front of his face. Is the press looking to entertain? Surely. Is the aim of its narratives only to entertain? Surely not. Sometimes it takes the figure to see the background.
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When someone accused Canadian press baron Max Aitken of only wanting to own newspapers for the purposes of making money and spreading his views, he replied, “Of course! Why else would you own a newspaper?”. At least he was honest… 🙂
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