In 1985’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman takes a big shit on television. Metphorically, I mean, like the concept of television, not live on air or something. We have transitioned, he argues, from an “age of typography” to the “age of television,” and consequently our ability to deeply engage with and discuss meaningful ideas has withered. Our discourse and intellects are suffocating under the weight of amusements, simple pleasures, and gauche televised spectacles, he says. But I’m not sure he’s right.
In “the age of typography,” information was disseminated primarily as books, pamphlets, essays, or other long-form writing. This mode of discourse, Postman says, encouraged deeper, more intellectually rigorous engagement with ideas, influencing how we thought and communicated. For example, in the 19th century, the American populace probably had a higher literacy rate than now; even advertising was text-based and slogan-free. Such was our attention span and engagement that listening to Lincoln and Douglas debate for hours at a time was no big deal.
Then, starting about a century ago, technological advances like photography, telegraphy, telephone, radio, and television began to upset this, and television—an entertainment device—now dominates public discourse. The primary consequence of this, Postman argues, is decontextualization. The “news” comes in 30 minute chunks; stories in 30-second voiceovers and bite-size nuggets to be passively absorbed with no further thought—a recitation of events and scores and poll results. Sensationalized stories make the rare seem commonplace; political debates are a kabuki of 30-second canned responses; religion is TV evangelism; newspapers are USA Today; boardgames and Buzzfeed listicles are just fractured unconnected trivia; education is edu-tainment programming. Information became entertainment, and we are amusing ourselves to death.
In 1984, control and power are achieved through fear and physical coercion. Thoughts and action are policed, and life is lived under an oppressive totalitarian jackboot. In Brave New World, control and power are achieved through pleasure: people given indiscriminate access to drugs, sex, and entertainment become docile and zombified. To Postman, it’s Huxley who was right—except it’s TV, not soma, that narcotizes us.
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I’m sympathetic to the cynics and misanthrope for whom Postman is accurately savaging the dumbing down of America. Pop culture is inane and infantilizing, CNN is shit, writing is the ars magna, our culture caters to the lowest common denominator. It’s undeniable: we’re actually arguing about the Oxford comma. We are doomed.
Well—maybe not. What Postman is missing is the actual content of those books and debates he longs for. Yes, Lincoln and Douglas had a four hour debate, but what did this ardor for debate and discussion accomplish? The 19th century was not some apex of enlightened society; stilted language and verbose literacy were the civilized veneer on barbarism. What is the virtue of a scholarly debate if it’s on the question of whether someone else is a human being or an ape? Yes, it’s true I’d rather someone read Jane Austen than watch SVU, but I’d also rather they watch The Wire than read a Dan Brown book. I’d rather they watch BJ and the Bear than read some morally execrable philosophical tract. The medium isn’t the message.
There’s a certain ahistoricity to Postman’s critique. I am dead certain that someone was lecturing Gutenberg about how his demonic press would destroy the world’s proud oral traditions, just as I am dead-certain that every culture-changing technological innovation leads to consternation about intellectual decay. How many dozens of thinkpieces have been written on Buzzfeed slideshows as an avatar of the shallow intellect and instant gratification of modern society? Such critiques are, almost uniformly, conceptually equivalent to Postman’s argument against television.
Postman never makes clear if he thinks we are losing the ability to contextualize and think deeply—like the Brawndo-swilling, burrito-covering-lacking populace of Idiocracy—or if we’re just apathetic about it, like the Riemann-Surface Tennis-playing Alphas of Brave New World. I’m not just making a pedantic distinction. Any new medium changes how we think and communicate, but implicit to Postman’s argument (and those bagging on Buzzfeed lists) is an assumption that there is a “best” mode of discourse or way of thinking. But that’s like saying there’s a “best” language to speak. The brain adapts to the world we inhabit, not an idealized conception of knowledge and discourse. Using TV in the classroom is bad if, like Postman, you assume there’s some Platonic ideal of a classroom that corresponds, magically, pretty closely to the one he grew up using and ignores that Sumerian kids used clay tablets and still learned math. Is TV bad, or is it just different?
I want to juxtapose Postman’s view with one that is contradictory yet intertwined: we are knowing ourselves to death. Scientific knowledge is accumulating at an accelerating rate: over the last century, the number of published articles in the physical sciences increased by 3-5% each year. The total number of published scientific articles now doubles every fifteen years. We are producing knowledge at an unprecedented and staggering rate.
Consider the consequences. A scientist a century ago could expect to read almost every article in their field of study, and a few outside it; many intellectual giants of yore studied and made contributions to divergent fields. Today, specialization is increasing and academic niches are narrowing. It’s increasingly difficult for researchers to read everything just in their little slice of the intellectual world, even as that slice gets smaller and smaller. Communication, consequently, gets more complicated. Here’s a psychology paper title from 60 years ago that’s somewhat legible to a layperson: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. ” In contrast, here’s a recent title that’s completely impenetrable: “Top–Down Inhibitory Control Exerted by the Medial Frontal Cortex during Action Selection under Conflict.” As knowledge accumulates, more and more expertise—more and more context—is needed to effectively communicate, no matter the medium.
So there’s an interesting dichotomy: Postman talks about how information disseminated through mass media is chopped up into decontextualized bite-size nuggets. At the same time, the reservoir of knowledge from which we draw grows progressively larger and offers the ability to add more context. If mass media demands decontextualization, academic discourse requires more and more context, even to its own detriment. Postman talks about knowledge surplus and highlights how we’re bombarded by irrelevant information—I can get local news from Bangor in about three seconds. But there’s almost always a surfeit of relevant information, too. Think for a second about just how much context we could add to a news story, if we wanted. What’s the right amount?
I don’t think we are trapped in a downward spiral towards superficial dimwittedness. Instead, I think we are trying to find ways to cope with information excess. We can do that by reducing the time we spend on any one thing. While I can’t defend the burlesque show of modern political debate theater, it beats the Lincoln-Douglas slugfest in terms of the number of topics covered. We can handle information overload by offloading, a strategy in which we remember not specific information, but knowledge about how to access that information. Offloading can cause problems—if the environment changes, we might lose track of some information—but it’s an efficient strategy for managing the firehose of information and the finite capacity of the brain. Things are changing, but I don’t think we’re getting dumber for it.