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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day.
(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)
An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.)
Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.
I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak.
All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.
McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:
I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]
From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”
The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:
With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial.
Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.
When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:
What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?
For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally.
All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.
I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.
On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:
…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.
Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.
The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.
To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.
I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?
Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.
That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation.
Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.
As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.
Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.
Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.
There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant.
In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth.
So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:
Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!
I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.