I’ve just recently read “Amusing Ourselves To Death” an excellent book, from 1985, by Neil Postman. If something seems familiar, it could be because you’re aware of the Roger Waters album “Amused To Death” from the early nineties, said to be inspired by Postman’s book.
It’s a great book, one of those rare tomes that make me think “everybody should read this”, because it addresses things that are so fundamentally relevant and important to current life, and does it so well.
It shortest summary form, the book examines television and how deeply it has affected contemporary human life in America, not just in terms of communication, but, as a result of the characteristics of the medium, how people perceive the world around them and themselves, and how they think. This means very fundamental, profound consequences in news, politics, commerce, education, and religion, all as a result of everything being forced to conform to the nature of the medium of television, and essentially turning everything into entertainment.
It’s pretty profound stuff to sit back and contemplate the fact that this book was written in the mid-eighties, a quarter century ago, basically a generation ago, before substantial changes that have come to pass since that time. Cable television existed, and was becoming a pretty common service for people to have, but television had not transformed into what we know today. For the most part, at that stage, it was still essentially the big three commercial broadcast networks, along with PBS, and their local television affiliates broadcasting the network programming along with some local programming. The cable service was a way to get a nice clean strong solid signal, with the local cable service taking the local stations and sending their signals down the wires, and along with that, offering a relatively few “cable network” channels, such as ESPN, some dopey “home shopping” operations, HBO, a few other odds and ends. (Incidentally, how many people remember when cable services all had a “public access” channel where essentially anybody could whip together a low budget program and get it shown?)
That has changed a lot since Postman wrote his book. I instantly realize, as I write that, that this last sentence has two obvious different meanings you can derive. One is that I mean what is found on cable TV services has changed considerably. The other is that the very existence of the growing number of cable television networks has had huge effects in terms of changes in what you find being shown.
One of the obvious things about the course television has taken over the past decade or two as a result of the facilities of offering a huge number of available channels is that it has led to an almost comical array of specialized channels distributed by cable and satellite services. Golf, food, cars, documentaries, almost any sort of niche of particular interests found a dedicated channel with programming devoted to that. That has been kind of a mixed bag of good and bad.
Among other consequences, that kind of spread of available programming brought increased possibilities that a person could find themselves spending far more time watching television, because they could find particular channels where there was a good chance of finding something they found interesting just about any time they looked. You can spend a bit of time on how much of that has actually deteriorated, but that’s a bit of a tangent.
I mean, there isn’t much history on the History Channel anymore. There is not much to discover on Discovery. What was The Learning Channel has mutated to TLC, and you won’t learn much there these days (if you ever really could, which was what Postman was talking about, before that network existed). What was the “SciFi” network devoted to science fiction is now “SyFy” (what the fuck is that?), and most of their programming now seems to be awful horror movies, even occasionally showing “pro wrestling” circuses.
Postman’s theme was not really about writing a critique of junk light entertainment on television. His concern was more about the idea that television would trvialize and grossly oversimplify important things in attempting to do news and other serious programming (like “educational television” for example) and turning everything into entertainment presenting “information” as tiny little self contained bite size snack factoids.
He had these concerns in an era when television was a bit different, and I think it’s pretty clear that the concerns and issues he had then have only become much more of an issue. CNN has deteriorated from being a great resource for up to the moment news, 24 hours a day, with plenty of opportunity for deep coverage and insight into a larger range of stories than could be covered in 30 minutes on the broadcast networks, to a channel where the same superficial coverage of headlines of the moment are repeated continually, and much of their programming consists of assorted guests and pundits just filling time with bullshit, speculation and opinions.
What was CNN Headline News, their separate channel devoted to actually featuring news anchors giving you the equivalent of the standard 30 minute broadcast news shows, reporting headline stories, cycling around so somebody could catch up on the news whenever they had the time to watch, has changed completely. You now don’t get any news on “CNN HLN”, and their 24 hours a day are filled with showbiz gossip and assorted tabloid idiocy and noise.
Postman wrote his book years before Rupert Murdoch put Republican propaganda meister Roger Ailes in charge of creating a full time 24/7 right wing propaganda dissemination service and calling it “Fox News Channel” (complete with their slogans like “Fair and Balanced” and “we report, you decide” that are an insult to the intelligence of anybody with education and intelligence above the level of a tree stump). Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves To Death in an era when he was concerned that the nature of the television medium trivialized and oversimplified complex stories, and turned things into little snack bites of entertainment, but even with the showbiz aspect corrupting things, there were people working in television news at least earnestly trying to be objective journalists reporting what was important. I wonder if he even conceived the possibility of an operation like Fox News Channel so eggregiously and blatantly distorting reality and working around the clock to manipulate what their viewers think.
Neil Postman probably would have been struck dumb in slack jawed horror by the deranged spectacle of Glenn Beck’s television shows, especially in the context of being broadcast on a full time news network (first CNN Headline News, then Fox News Channel).
Television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
(edit note: Ignore this bit. Text to test what version is showing as I check a problem where uploads of corrections of stupid typos are appearing as new separate entries.)