While remaining relevant and prophetic for decades after its first publication, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman falls victim to some of the very indulgences it warns against.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman investigates the effects of emerging media on culture and public discourse.It remains surprisingly relevant for a book that was written in the 1980s, before the internet, computers, or cell phones were common place. Despite its shortcomings, remaining relevant for over 30 years in this field is a staggering accomplishment.
While the first few chapters of the book are quite compelling, the book seems to lose steam as it carries on, and one wonders if the work, and its thesis, would have been better served in a shorter (and more concise) format (indeed, the book originated from a talk given in 1984). It is perhaps ironic that Postman’s message was compromised as a result of conforming to the expectations of a medium (a book of certain length), since one of his lamentations are that journalism has been compromised as a result of needing to adhere to the expectations of entertainment media.
It is also interesting that Postman chooses to structure the entire book (which reads more like a lengthy essay) around a fabricated conflict between Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. To be certain, his insight that 1984 shows us the dangers of what we fear while Brave New World shows us the dangers of what we love, makes for a very compelling introduction, but as the narrative continues this comparison is overly (and increasingly less effectively) emphasized, to the point where it begins to hinder the delivery of his thesis.
The problem, for me, was that Postman was determined to convince the reader that Brave New World was right and 1984 was wrong. It is not clear why he assumed them to be mutually exclusive, but his failure to challenge this assumption had a negative impact on the work in general.
It seemed that Postman was determined to state as often as possible that Orwell ‘was wrong,’ even while being compelled to point out that Orwellian dynamics certainly apply in several countries.
And while he is convincing in that Huxleyan dynamics currently prevail in Western culture, it didn’t seem to occur to him that Orwellian dynamics may have been stifled as a direct result of the publication of 1984, or that Orwellian and Huxleyan dynamics interact with (and even enhance) each other.He omits the glaring possibility that a preoccupation with pleasure, entertainment, frivolity, and irrelevance leaves us less able to defend against propaganda, fear mongering, deceit, and censorship; or that such oppression leaves us more vulnerable to losing ourselves in escapism.
His use of Orwell as a straw man unnecessarily detracts from the crediblity of his thesis, and one can’t help but wonder what caused such an unnecessary pre-occupation in such a short book. One might say that he was misled by an enticing metaphor.
The opening chapter, with a nod to Marshall McLuhan, is entitled, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” in which he investigates how media such as the telegraph and photograph (and even the clock) affected our outlook and the context with which we view the world. He declares that the use of these media affect how we see and interact with the world. One will find similar arguments with respect to “cultural myths” (rather than media) in Quinn’s Ishmael.
While this is a compelling and interesting chapter, it is another irony that Postman has become the victim of trapping his ideas in the metaphor of conflict — a conflict between Orwell and Huxley which need not exist.
To be sure, to view non-identical ideas as being in conflict can be a useful lens through which to view them, but if one is in pursuit of the truth, one must also evaluate whether they are indeed in conflict, or if such conflict is inevitable. And so long as one is comparing such ideas, why not view them through the lens of their being allies?
If Orwell had been warning a caveman that predators are dangerous, while Huxley warned him that starving to death was dangerous, and then Postman told the caveman that he should only worry about starving, and that predators are not relevant, without considering that a predator can eat you whether or not you’re starving, and that the weaker one is from starvation, the more vulnerable to predators one becomes. One may highlight one danger without discrediting the other.
Because it was the seduction of the conflict metaphor that may have even diverted Postman from his actual thesis. While the core thesis was that entertainment media represents a danger to our culture through the erosion of public discourse and the promotion of a culture of irrelevance, one might easily read his thesis to be that Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right – which wasn’t really the point — it was just a compelling opening argument that was especially enticing and rellevant because the book was published in 1985 (since 1984 had passed without the rearing of Big Brother in Western Culture (although one could certainly argue the other side of this point)). Indeed, if this compromise was made for the sake of marketing, then Postman’s work was itself the victim of the very dynamics it warnsagainst.
Postman closes the book by telling us that 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.”
I would ammend that to suggest that even more dangerous than not knowing why they had stopped thinking, was that they had not realized that they had stopped thinking.