01/11/2008

Amusing Ourselves to Death (by Neil Postman)

I'd never heard of Neil Postman, until one of my sons was given this book. Then the other son had to read it as part of a theology course. Neil Postman was apparently a humanist rather than a Christian, however.

'Amusing ourselves to death' is rather dated now; it was written in 1985 when television was immensely popular, particularly in the USA, but computer technology was still in its infancy. It's a thought-provoking book, and while I didn't agree with all that the author wrote, I thought it well worth reading and pondering.

Postman's premise is that while George Orwell's vision of the future matched fairly well with Communist countries - restricted information, altered history, 'big brother' watching every move and censoring speech - it is Aldous Huxley's vision which matches far more closely with the reality of the west, and particularly the USA. Huxley saw a world in which nothing was restricted; instead people had so much leisure and so much entertainment that they ceased questioning or thinking.

Postman does not actually criticise the entertainment on television, believing that it is - or was - mostly done very well. The problem, he claims, is that far more serious issues have become reduced to show business by being shown on TV. News, religion, politics - he takes a chapter on each, demonstrating how each has had to adapt to fit in with the mass media culture.

News comes in short sound-bites from all over the world, delivered by smiling, smart-looking presenters who expect us to have forgotten it all by the time the show has ended.

Religious television has glamorised, well-dressed men and women spouting prosperity. Even the better of the TV evangelists, he claims, has completely lost any sense of mystery or community that we would find in churches.

As for politics - as I read this book, the run-up to the 2008 American presidential elections were in their final week. He is absolutely right in that balding, frowning, obese men would have no chance at all of being elected in a TV age. Instead recent US presidents have been fast-talking, smiling, smooth operators who respond instantly in a crisis. To the voting public, their lives and personal beliefs seem to matter far more than the policies of the parties they stand for. And even then, we don't see the real people, just the distortions displayed for our viewing pleasure on TV.

Capitalism, Postman claims, is attacked daily by television adverts. No longer can consumers choose carefully between several good products, selecting the best quality that will most meet their needs. Instead they are bombarded with dubious claims about the products in question, and emotional appeals to get in touch with long-lost relatives (using a particular phone line, or email provider) or treat the love of their lives to the best coffee, or chocolate, or perfume.

There's a lot in this book, and while it's a little heavy-going in places, I found it very readable. I didn't agree with all he wrote, however. He seemed to think that the age of lengthy talks and debates was somehow 'better' than the age of technology and fast-moving pictures. I agree that it's different, and that perhaps we have lost something, but we seem to have gained something too. Yes, much of the information we are fed is trivial, and school curricula tend to be disjointed, sometimes (as in one example he quotes) even based around a televised series where the subject is actually chosen not because it's of use to students, but because it makes good television.

Where does it leave us? Postman is sensible enough to realise that nobody is going to switch off their TVs just because of his book. Those that are addicted will probably remain so, and we're not going to lose the multi-media aspects of life that we now take for granted.

I personally think that with the introduction of home computers, now probably as widespread in the west as television was in the 1980s, we have actually moved on. Computers are interactive; we choose which sites to visit rather than being bombarded with a set TV schedule.

Indeed, with satellite TV there is a great deal more choice over viewing, but television is still essentially a top-down medium, whereas computers allow us to reply, to debate, and to research at a much greater level.

A lot to think about. Certainly worth reading, in my opinion.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 1st November 2008

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