A Book Review of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
The recent debates around religion and representation shed light on the following quandary: whatever good is in mainstream media must eventually submit to the demands of entertainment. The mainstream, as we call it, is largely that which entertains. There is almost no sanctity it is unwilling to violate. It turns every facet of serious discourse into a vaudeville act for a laugh or two. Yet, this should not be surprising, because that is what popular mediums of media are oriented towards, subordinating ideas to entertainment. This is the argument of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Postman wrote in the 1980s, a decade riddled with Cold War tensions and fears of a potential Orwellian dystopia. Cable channels like CNN and MTV enjoyed popularity, and VCR and home movie systems quickly became permanent fixtures in the American household. As a result, television became the dominant medium of discourse, much to the alarm of Postman, and print-based epistemology eroded into a television-based epistomology. The presentation of content and the content itself in television is largely shaped by the medium: how we receive public information transforms how and what we determine to be knowledge. Television, unlike the printed word, is discontinuous, rarely requires prerequisite information to understand what one’s viewing (and therefore doesn’t expand depth of knowledge in a subject like a book would, chapter by chapter), appeals heavily to visuals, and primes for preoccupation with optics instead of substance. A study in the Netherlands found that from 1955 to 1995, time spent reading decreased by half, and especially so between 1955 to 1975, identifying television as the culprit. Other surveys found a similar trend among Americans.
However, the problem lies not in the existence of the television itself nor of entertainment. Nor does it lie in enjoying the latest episode of your favorite TV show every once in a while. The problem emerges precisely when television moves beyond harmless “junk” and becomes the primary vehicle through which a society grasps religion, politics, and education: “when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.”
The transformation of print-based epistemology was a process which began before the 1980s as new modes of communication became popular. For example, Postman describes the invention of the telegram and photography as the beginning of the decline of the “Age of Typography.” Where before, written long-form works primarily of local sources were both coherent and relevant by nature, the telegram expanded access to the world and made it possible for tidbits of information to move around quickly, facilitating contextless and discontinuous information in the “form of slogans.” The result was that “intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.” Ensconced in the internet, the average consumer of news today is acutely aware of how common and tempting simply scrolling past a multitude of headlines is, distracted by advertisements, hypertext, the temptation to switch tabs, and so on. The telegram was similar in its fragmented, discontinuous nature. The other piece is photography. Pictures “lack syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world” and can only testify to what is pictured. It has no opinions, is a snapshot of a single moment, and there is no context without further elaboration.
Together, the telegram and photograph hastened the arrival of what Postman calls a “peek-a-boo world,” where information pops up for mere moments, then vanishes into an endless stream. This is necessary for certain kinds of discourse, but what happens when a new technological object arrives and becomes the ubiquitous source for most information? Television amplified the biases of these two forms, which resulted in an inferior epistemology that is more entertainment than knowledge: “television speaks in only one persistent voice – the voice of entertainment.” The following summarizes the crux of his argument:
My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling…I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.
News is interrupted by commercials that aim to capture viewers’ attention with catchy slogans and music, and arrival of serious, tragic information is mused over for a few minutes before transitioning to the next and quickly forgotten. Previously hours-long debates are today’s presidential debates in which candidates are given mere minutes to answer questions and precious few seconds for rebuttal, competing for the best optics. Televangelists, intentionally or not, make God “vague” in the backdrop of their celebrity and appearances. In educational shows for children, the content is decided by what makes for good television. Perhaps the creator of Dragon Tales, a children’s show, described it best when he wrote about early scripts failing because “the curriculum had killed the entertainment,” and thereafter receiving a new directive: “come up with entertaining stories and shoehorn in the curriculum wherever it fits!” Instead of encouraging a community ripe for growth, it has exacerbated the community’s inclination for amusement. Instead of asking “what is television good for?” we ask, “how can this be put on television?”
With these examples, it is no surprise when Postman declares that “the best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it.” In aspiring to do more than the creation of the trivial, television trivialized everything else. When that happened, Americans, he argues, were never before so under the illusion of being well-informed while remaining ignorant.
The nostalgic picture Postman paints of the past warrants further discussion, as amusement and man’s appetite for it has always existed. But it is clear that entertainment’s accessibility and ubiquitousness have increased dramatically. A Postman-like critique of today’s electronic media is just as, if not more applicable, to streaming services, on-demand news, and social media. One argument made is that today consumers have more choices than television networks used to offer, so we have more control. A Google design ethicist in his essay How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind, describes these choices as mainly illusions as he outlines the tactics product designers use to keep users hooked. Like television, today’s products largely exploit psychological vulnerabilities to minimize the chances of users pausing or leaving. If amusement is what attracts, then it amuses: in doing so, the monopoly they have on one’s time and sources of information grows.
While the Islamic pedagogical tradition has always emphasized the personal transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, the expanding accessibility of the internet offers endless instruction, albeit with unintended downsides: the Muslim ‘televangelist’ who produces glitzy debates designed to ‘own’ others; famous personas and brands who offer little substance but gain credibility in serious matters by virtue of follower count; content producers who cheaply imitate the entertainment industry with a dry Islamic flavor, putting the sacred into the hands of the profane.
These platforms are suited for the entertaining and sensational in the first place, so it is unsurprising that in using them our discourse follows suit. Yet it is a reflection on consumers as much as it is on the producers of such content. We are able to critique the symptoms, but what is it about these mediums that make them particularly suited for an ‘influencer culture’? Why is entertainment an absolute must, making the sacred submit to the vileness it often demands, rather than occasional, tasteful embellishment in matters of the deen? What can Muslims do about it?
Even Postman acknowledges television is here to stay. Television and other modern technology have their purposes, and their producers and users are usually, one hopes, well-intentioned. But there is knowledge and information that cannot be adequately conveyed through these mediums because they are not built for it, and their design inevitably reduces the message. If Postman is right, Aldous Huxley’s vision in his novel Brave New World seems prescient:
for in the end, [Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution. Postman dedicates mere pages to the obstacles in proposing easy-fixes: mainly because this is not a problem most see as needing a solution; and because a solution may not even exist. However, the imperative to understand technology’s role in discourse rests on the public, and Postman’s book is an indispensable starting point.
Merriment has its place and one would be hard pressed to argue for a complete elimination of it. Humor is also not antithetical to religion: the examples of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions illustrate that it is a matter of balance. The Internet Age will persist. It is detrimental to assume that Muslims have absolutely no need of entertainment, or that we are not influenced by it whatsoever. The varied reactions to mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov’s recent win and retirement demonstrate that, while rightfully critiquing influencer culture, there is a genuine desire for contemporary public figures (both women and men) for Muslims to support and be inspired by.
Western cultural hegemony is invested in creating a specific type of Muslim narrative, usually ‘secular’ and ‘moderate’ under their demands. Tyranny diminishes religion through Orwellian measures. Otherwise ‘free’ societies do so by turning religious practices and beliefs into bizarre punchlines, devoid of sanctity. We must be invested in becoming culture creators that set the boundaries within the confines of what is religiously sound, and work to reroute the whimsical nature of the entertainment machine to offer something better in its stead. But left unchanged, when these avenues are the primary lens sought out to attain a semblance of knowledge, Postman implores us to ask whether ‘mainstream’ entertainment and its concomitant mediums are an end goal worth the corruption of what we revere into endless amusement.
Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.
- Knulst, Wim, and Gerbert Kraaykamp. “Trends in Leisure Reading: Forty Years of Research on Reading in the Netherlands.” Poetics, North-Holland, 2 Dec. 1998, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304422X98000084.
- Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Simon Fraser University, 2007, pp. 16.
- Ibid,. pp. 170
- Ibid., pp. 73
- Ibid., pp. 80
- Ibid., pp. 27
- Ibid., pp. 122
- Ibid., pp. 153
- Ibid., pp. 163
- Ibid., pp. 106
- Harris, Tristan. “How Technology Is Hijacking Your Mind - from a Former Insider.” Medium, Thrive Global, 16 Oct. 2019, medium.com/thrive-global/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3.
- Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Simon Fraser University, 2007, pp. 163.
Photo Credit: Mikita Yo via Unsplash
About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is the Marketing Director of Traversing Tradition. She is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn. She is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.