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Book summary: Amusing ourselves to death (II)

This is the second part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.

This second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. See the first part on this blog. The third and last part will be my full, mostly unedited notes.

EDIT: Add link to the last post.

TV news

In TV news are presented not only fragmented, but without context, consequences, or value. In short, without essential seriousness: as pure entertainment.

The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness conveyed by the actor/reporter. Political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.

No matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim of TV news as serious public discourse. Imagine seeing that in a book!

One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. One is drawn into the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [Does this help explain 4chan and fake news? –Esteban]

TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation (in the CIA/KGB sense): misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial–which creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. We are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

Contradictions, ie. mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly be both true in the same context, have ceased to exist because the context has disappeared or fragmented, and thus there cannot be any contradiction. The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.

Religion

Two main ideas: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented as entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.

There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.

Attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, and they do so by offering people something they want. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need.

When religion is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment, and that distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.

Politics

Politics are also taken over by TV, and so the main idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. That is, advertising. In contrast, some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life.

Advertising has spoiled capitalism (there is no possible rational decision-making with modern advertising), and also politics, which have adopted advertising’s way of working: short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. In fact, TV makes it impossible to know which politician is better (= more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, etc.) than whom. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.

Education

As a TV show, “Sesame Street” doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV. Whether or not it teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant because the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: collateral learning of attitudes is often more important than the spelling or geography lesson, for these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.

TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. No one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment. And education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment (see references to relevant studies on p. 151: “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”). [How would this compare to modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube? –Esteban]

Conclusions

This part of the summary explores the specific ways in which TV’s way of thinking has taken over politics, news, education, and religion. Remember to check the first part of the summary for the most important ideas in the book, and check the third and last part of the summary if you want the full notes. Or, you know, read the book, because it’s great!