Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Thoughts on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Explanation: While this was fun (entertaining?) regardless my sister-in-law, Kelly Morse, who is rocking her senior year at Houghton College sent me some questions on this book as her class is discussing it this week. I decided to post my response. Enjoy.

What I like the book: Postman's writing is clear and communicative in a singularly excellent fashion. He makes difficult concepts very accessible. In Amusing Ourselves to Death he reaches past standard issues with television by elaborating on common riffs (attention span) as well as tying in more complex issues (the loss of a print culture and how deeply that affects national thinking) I really like the way this book deals with how do we (the viewers) interact with this thing called entertainment and since one of the main/popular vehicles of this thing called entertainment in the 20/21st centuries is television, how do we successfully interact with it? Postman suggests the first/best way is by understanding our history which he lays out in Part I. Postman demonstrates out, from his viewpoint, how America has interacted with and been impacted by printed material through the 19th century and the decline of that printed material into the end of the 20th century. “…I do not mean to say that print merely influenced the form of public discourse. That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content.” (pg. 42) The very temporal form of television as a medium (form) drives the quick-changing temporality of the content (entertainment). Even television news becomes a show; all the world news in 30 minutes? Not a chance. “…it [television] has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.” (pg. 87) I think this is true. Education, religion, art and _______(fill in the blank) are expected to exist in entertaining methods in order to even attract a viewer’s attention. Students claim a class is boring but when pressed for why cannot give ready answers because they were expecting entertainment and none was delivered.
I like that Postman reflects a lot of Marshall McLuhan, whom he quotes liberally through this work. To my eyes, much of Amusing Ourselves shouts “The medium is the message” in a constant, harmonizing chant.
One of the reasons I think this work still succeeds is that Postman is not saying that print is better than television and we should just switch back to a former medium. He notes the benefits/uses of television but states that we are not recognizing the warning signs or the effects that the clinging to a new medium is bringing about. Postman walks through the short history of print’s effects on America in order to draw the reader’s attention to specifically how the focus on entertainment as a terminal position is deeply changing how we think about our interactions with our world. He does not resort to saying television bad, print good but argues convincingly from a foundation that the medium of a message in fact determines the content of the message and thus we should be against against our current direction.
One of his best examples/ literary parallels is that it is “easier to avoid an Orwellian universe than it is a Huxleyan one.” Our focus on entertainment has effectively removed, of our own volition, the ability to connect with historical methods of thinking and critiquing and this is what Postman is trying to remind the reader of Huxley’s world where “…they did not know why they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (Pg. 163)
Any problems with Postman's writing/thinking? While this work is footnoted fairly well there are some instances where footnotes would be nice or assumed. On page 86, Postman makes a note about the average length of a camera shot being 3.5 seconds without noting where that information was found. I don’t think this is common knowledge though I could be wrong.

There is something ironic about writing about a post-print culture in a book that is against entertainment as an end to itself or point of living yet will probably be read only by those concerned about the encroachment of technology/entertainment in the first place. This is not a problem with Postman.

Changes since 1984? Some of Postman’s examples given are dated. This is to be expected I think because of the quicksilver-like nature of entertainment esp. through the medium of television. The shooting of JR episode in Dallas which I have never seen gets several mentions though I’m sure it would very easy to find these on YouTube. Also on Pg. 88 Postman walks through a symposium of such people as Wiesel and Kissinger dealing with a response to the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Again, since entertainment has little to no historical record, excepting Friends re-runs, I had no knowledge of this but again it may be easy to find.
The popularity of the Internet and communication media (cellphones, etc.) is probably the biggest change but I think the general principles Postman lays out are abstract enough to continue to be applicable and will be applicable, unfortunately more so, in the coming future. This work will serve as a continual reminder of being enamored with information or media for its/their own sake(s). “…the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision –making and action but may attach merely to its novelty, interest and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” (Pg. 65)

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