Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Report: Amusing Ourselves to Death

Speaking of avoiding Rabbit Holes, I just finished reading "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman. This prophetic book was first published in 1985, but it's message couldn't be more relevant to the world we live in.

His thesis is that we live not in an Orwellian vision where the government controls us through censorship and manipulation, but in a Huxleyan one where the masses are drugged into impotence through contentment and apathy. He further argues that the medium that has shaped our culture so dramatically is television.

He talks at length not about the content of television but about how it functions and what implications that has for a society that accepts and adores it as much as ours in the United States. Since television is a rapid series of images transmitted to us electronically from anywhere on earth, it is often quite divorced from the reality of our daily lives. A quote:

"The situation created by telegraphy, and then exacerbated by later technologies, made the relationship between information and action both abstract and remote. For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of diminished social and political potency....We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence."

These words were an "AHA Moment" for me (to borrow a phrase from a master of the television medium). Suddenly, through this lens, our whole world snapped into a new focus. I cannot bear to watch the nightly news, and haven't for years, because it fills me with a kind of hopelessness and frustration. If I cannot help with these problems, why should I listen to them paraded before me? They are irrelevant to my life, but so difficult to ignore on an emotional level.

This is precisely what Mr. Postman argues. Television makes emotional appeals, not intellectual ones. In fact, it is designed to avoid exposition which is sometimes dull and can be avoided by the viewer with a click of the remote. Without exposition, we loose the threads of argument and concentrated thought. All television offers us is images which tug at our heartstrings in one way or another.

"It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable."

What is left to us when we are divorced from our local realities and intellectual processes? We seek amusement. And this is exactly where we are now. Everything sacred in our culture has been stripped of it's meaning because that meaning has been turned into amusement or entertainment.

Once you begin thinking about it you can see it across the board:


But here is the thing, turning off your television isn't enough to ward off this insidious non-thinking, because it totally permeates our culture. Mr. Postman already thought so in 1985 and could trace it's origins to the telegraph. Think how much faster information travels now! Think about the "news" we see now. When Hugh Jackman hurt himself zip lining onto Oprah's stage in Sydney it zipped around the world INSTANTLY-well before the show aired! I can't think of a better example of information that is both trivial and useless, yet it is offered with such breathless excitement that we find it hard to ignore. The novelty of the speed at which information can travel has yet to wear off. And technology keeps presenting us with new ways to always remain connected to the stream of randomness.

Mr. Postman concludes with a rather depressing chapter that says the best we can do is try to engage in a discussion and thought process about how television functions and what it promotes. I think we need to do the same thing with the internet. Each new transformative technology comes with trade offs- they may offer us many tremendous benefits, but there are costs as well and we have to consider them.

What meant so much to me about this book was how it engaged metacognition- the act of thinking about how you think. Living a truly thoughtful life is my highest goal for myself and I can't do that without considering my thinking and what influences it and then learning how to direct it.

This book came into my life at just the right moment since my goal for this year was to abide by these lines:

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

How does technology enrich your life? How does it tax your life? Do you find yourself loosing time getting sucked down the rabbit hole? How do you live a three dimensional life?

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