In 1985’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman takes a big metaphorical shit on television. I mean, the concept of television, not like, 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 rigidly-defined 30 minute chunks; stories in 30-second factoids and bite-size nuggets* to be passively resorbed with no further thought. Engaged intellectual discourse doesn’t sell on TV, and so “the news” becomes a recitation of events and sports scores and poll results. Sensationalized stories make the rare seem commonplace; political debates are 30-second canned responses; religion becomes TV evangelism; newspapers become USA Today; education becomes edu-tainment. When information becomes entertainment, we amuse 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.
*Postman ties this decontextualization to the rise of games that rely on trivial, unconnected information—crossword puzzles and Trivial Pursuit. Information is disseminated in fractured, distinct, and unconnected units, and what else are we to do with all those free-floating factoids ping-ponging around our brain case than use them to solve crosswords or answer trivia questions?
• • •
To the cynic or misanthrope—to whom I’m sympathetic—Postman is accurately savaging the dumbing down of America. Pop culture is inane and infantilizing, CNN is shit, writing is the ars magna of society, we cater to the lowest common denominator at our peril. It’s undeniable, after all, that things are going down the drain: we’re actually having arguments about whether the Oxford comma is necessary. We are doomed.
Or maybe not. Postman’s argument ironically decontextualizes books and debate: what he’s missing is the actual content of those books and debates. Sure, Lincoln and Douglas had a four hour debate and people might have been, in some sense, more literate in the 19th century than today. But what did this ardor for debate and discussion accomplish? The 19th century was not an apex of enlightened society, it was oppressive and colonialist with a veneer of civilized gentility. 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? I’d rather someone watch The Wire than read a Dan Brown book, and I’d rather they watched BJ and the Bear than read some morally execrable philosophical treatise.
There’s a certain ahistoricity to this kind of critique. I’m sure that when the printing press came online, someone was lecturing on how it would destroy the old oral traditions that made society (or perhaps more accurately, religion) what it was. Indeed I am sure that every culture-changing technological innovation leads to consternation about intellectual decay and pleas for kids to get off the metaphorical lawn. How many thinkpieces have been written on the deep cultural meaning of BuzzFeed slideshows, and are those complaints structurally any different than Postman’s argument against television?
Ultimately, Postman does not make 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 becoming apathetic about it—like the Riemann-Surface Tennis-playing Alphas of Brave New World.
I’m not just making a pedantic distinction. Certainly TV has altered public discourse and the way we think; any medium does that. But inherent in Postman’s argument (and those of Buzzfeed slideshows) is an assumption that there is a best mode of discourse or way of thinking, which seems as odd as saying there is a best way to speak English. Like dialects, our brains aren’t fixed systems. The brain adapts to navigate the world we inhabit, not to some idealized concept of what knowledge and discourse should be. So Postman laments the use of TV in education and how it changes the classroom, as though some timeless Platonic ideal of a classroom exists, as though Sumerian students didn’t learn to do math on clay tablets just fine. If the brain adapts, the classroom should adapt as well. Is there really nothing to learn via television, or is it just different than what’s come before and therefore bad?
I would like to juxtapose Postman’s view with one that is both contradictory and intertwined: we are actually 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 articles now doubles every fifteen years. We are “producing” knowledge at an unprecedented and staggering rate.
Consider the consequences. 150 years ago, a scientist could reasonably expect to read almost every article published in their field of study and probably a few outside it. Intellectual giants of yore were “renaissance men” who studied and made contributions to divergent fields. That’s much rarer today. As specialization increases and academic niches grow smaller, it’s increasingly difficult for academics to read everything just in their own little corner of the intellectual world, even while that corner gets smaller and smaller. Communication becomes more complicated: a half-century ago one of the most famous psychology studies could be summarized and understood by its title: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (or mostly understood; it’s about the 7-item capacity of short-term memory). In contrast, here’s a recent article from Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: “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, which should make us a little less harsh on science journalists.
So there’s an interesting dichotomy: Postman talks about how information disseminated through mass media is chopped up into decontextualized bite-size nuggets to be swallowed whole without further thought. At the same time, the reservoir of knowledge from which we draw grows progressively larger and thus offers even more context. When Postman discusses a knowledge surplus, he highlights how we’re bombarded by irrelevant information: I can get the local news from Bangor or anywhere else in about three seconds, but how much is actually relevant to me? But there’s almost always a surfeit of relevant information, too. If TV and “mass” discourse demands decontextualization, academic discourse is requiring progressively more context, even to its own detriment. Think for a second about just how much context we could add to a news story, if we wanted. How much is the right amount?
Rather than being trapped in a downward spiral to superficial dimwittedness, I think we are just trying to find ways to cope with information excess. Three-hour soliloquies followed by ninety-minute rebuttals constricts the sheer number of topics that can be discussed in a debate. I’m not defending the burlesque show of modern presidential debates, but they certainly beat out the Lincoln-Douglas donnybrooks purely in terms of the number of topics covered. The information surplus practically forces us to offload, a strategy in which we remember not specific information, but knowledge about how to access that information—I don’t remember that recipe for a delicious pork tenderloin, but I know where I can find it. 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.
In sum: things are changing, but not for the worst.