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Postman Still Delivers: Amusing Ourselves to Death

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a seminar on a particular theological topic. In addition to the main topic that I was invited to address, I was also asked to be prepared to recommend and briefly summarize a few books that are outside my field of scholarship. In reality, almost nothing that is non-fiction is really irrelevant to a historical theologian. But I get the idea—something not directly about church history or Christian theology.

In fact, I quite enjoyed the preparation and came ready to talk about some of my favorite books. Sadly, and for no apparent reason, I became violently ill and was prevented from speaking for only that one session. The next day, after my recovery, I even offered to abbreviate my final session in order to make room for some book recommendations, but no one took me up on the offer. So here I provide something that I would not have done in the limited time I had there—a selective summary of and then brief riff on themes related to one of my book recommendations: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).

(If you have never read this book, please, don’t delay, open a new browser window right now and go purchase this book. Then come back and continue reading.)

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) both famously depict a future ruled by technology, or, more properly, by an elite group who uses technology. (If you haven’t read these two books either, go back to your shopping page. Maybe it’s not too late to get them in the same shipment with Postman.) Postman points out that Orwell’s dire vision did not come to fruition in 1984, the year that had just passed when Amusing Ourselves was published. Plenty of it has come true, of course: “Big Brother is Watching You”; the bareness, dinginess, and listlessness of modern life; the new norm of indiscriminate violence; and the like. But Orwell’s vision was of a totalitarian state that, at least in the modern West, has not quite been realized. Big Brother was forced on the populace from above, and only the brave could resist.

By contrast, Huxley envisioned a regime that ruled more or less with the consent of the people. Only the courageous few resisted in this world, too, but what they resisted was the will of their fellow citizens. "In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

Postman focuses much of his energy in this book on television. He argues that TV is changing culture in ways that people don’t fully appreciate. In fact, TV, used primarily as a medium of instant entertainment and amusement, dumbs down everything it touches—especially (but not exclusively) education, political discourse, and religion. For example, Postman lampoons the 1984 presidential debates between Reagan and Mondale. What a far cry they were from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But if Postman could have witnessed the presidential “debates” we’ve seen since the 2016 cycle!

The pleasure (or is it pain?) of reading Postman’s book is enhanced when you realize both how skeptical the reception of his book was and, against the skeptics, how very true it has turned out to be. Indeed, if you take every occurrence of "television" throughout the book and replace it at random with words like "streaming services," "internet," "smartphone," "iPod," and "social media," then you can see just how far we have come. Consistent with Huxley’s dystopia, we are not ruled primarily by force; we are willing participants. We have chosen our drug ("soma"), and we pay a pretty penny every month to be enslaved by these gadgets.

In many ways, I think Postman’s most important point is that we not engage new technologies in an ignorant way. We should ask good questions about them. The problem, however, is that most people don’t even know what to ask. This goes especially for those who clamor the loudest in favor of technology as the cure-all for everything. They are the last ones we should be listening to.

And on this note, if you’re not going to read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and even if you will or have read it, you at least have to read a short speech he gave at a conference of tech enthusiasts in 1998, entitled "Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change," which in many ways is a summary of his (also) fantastic book, Technopoly (1992). Just consider, for example, the first thing he says we need to know: “culture always pays a price for technology.” That is, technology is never an unmixed blessing. If there is an advantage, there is almost always a disadvantage, too. Sadly, in their headlong rush for the shine and sparkle, technophiles rarely stop to ask what is being undone. Postman writes:

In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies. (“Five Things”)

That is, seek to understand what each technological change brought—not only what was gained, but also what was lost.

Every time I read that quotation from Postman, I cannot help but think of the countless people (educators, mostly) I have heard or read over the years who are so excited about acquiring new technology for the classrooms. The fact that they never discuss the potential negatives is proof that they have never considered them. Postman’s advice is not new—it is the same advice Socrates offered in Phaedrus regarding the invention of writing—it’s just new to most modern people.

One problem is a lack of imagination—imagination of what it was like to live in a society where people listened to and followed the prolonged arguments of the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Imagine what it was like to talk to strangers in public or not to know what was happening on the other side of the world today or to hear only live music and speech. I dare say that 90% of our lives are lived in ways that were not possible or at least not common over a century ago. And, from the looks of things, even people who grew up without smartphones—and were tolerably content without them—cannot imagine their lives without one now. I suppose it would be even more difficult for them to take seriously what Socrates says about the harm of the technology of writing.

In Postman’s judgment, to embrace technologies with no questions asked is a “form of stupidity.”

In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it. (“Five Things”)

It’s hard to read this 25-year-old quotation without a sense of loss. Postman worries that “the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life” (“Five Things,” emphasis mine). It hadn’t yet in 1998. But it has since then, because no one listened in 1998. Community life, and a number of other salutary things that used to characterize homo sapiens, are rapidly being replaced by technological substitutes.

If we get nothing else out of Postman, take this to heart: ask good questions about technology.“To ask is to break the spell” (Amusing Ourselves, 161).


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