Neil Postman Strikes

31 Jul

When I was about four years old, my mother made an announcement. I had previously been allowed to watch three half-hour children’s television shows. Now, to my great delight, I was permitted to watch four. Four shows! I thought it was wonderful. And if you had told my four-year-old self that, by the time I was a teenager, I would hardly watch TV at all, I would have been horrified.

At this point in my life, I avoid watching TV for two reasons. First, it’s unfortunately too easy for me to sit down to a program I don’t care about and stay there for two hours. Secondly, I can read now, which I could not do when I was four years old. And most of the books I own are more entertaining–to me, at least–than most of the movies I have access to. Not particularly high philosophical reasons. I simply stopped watching TV when I outgrew children’s videos.

C. S. Lewis grew up before cinema became popular, so he had the perspective of adulthood to help him reach his decision in regards to film. His verdict was unfavorable. For one thing, he strongly disliked some popular movies–Walt Disney’s, in particular. His most common complaint, from my reading of his books, had to do with the effect films would have on viewers’ imaginations. Immature or uneducated readers, Lewis argued, exercised their imaginations largely through popular novels. “If so,” he then concluded, “nothing can be more disastrous than the view that cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

But Neil Postman takes a different approach to the subject, with the added benefit of living long enough to see television become popular in the home. In 1985 he wrote his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is an attack against the television.

Yet it isn’t a typical attack against the television. Yes, says Postman, television is very entertaining. That’s the point of its existence. And Postman, unlike C.S. Lewis, was not primarily concerned about anyone’s imaginative life. Let them watch movies all they want–every culture has its own forms of entertainment. The real problem with TV’s entertaining quality is when it isn’t being used for entertainment. News shows and commercials are very entertaining, which is precisely the problem.

Postman’s book has two main weaknesses–neither entirely his fault. First, it doesn’t address the issue of the Internet, because the books pre-dated the popular use of the Internet. Second, Postman doesn’t offer very many solutions to the problems resulting from television. But that’s a very difficult problem to solve in a nation addicted to electronics. Postman cannot solve the problem, but he sheds more light on the problem than anyone else I have read.

For years I’ve heard statements similar to this one: “There’s nothing wrong with technology. It’s all how you use it.” That’s true to a point, or I would be pretty hypocritical right now–posting an anti-technology post on the computer. Technology can be used for good purposes. But Postman says what others don’t like to say–television isn’t evil, but it is different. Being raised on computers and television will produce a different sort of person than being raised on print. And that unfortunate fact is often ignored.

How different? Postman argues that there have been two communication revolutions in history–the change from oral communication to print, and the change from print to electronic media. Oral culture valued people with good memories and who had a lot of life experience. Print culture emphasized the skills of understanding and logical analysis. Electronic culture differs from both, encouraging a focus on images and lowering people’s attention spans. All forms of media are not equal. Unequal does not mean “evil.” But it does mean that we should be aware of what we are doing to ourselves when watch  television or use the internet.

News shows don’t examine problems in detail–because that’s not entertaining. Commercials are about consumer psychology, not the products they advertise. Political debates don’t require extended discussion of the questions–they are about appearance, not logic. And, of particular concern to me, even religion has been affected by the electronic mindset.

Postman, so far as I can tell, was not closely affiliated with any religion. Yet his critiques of TV religion–that it reduces religion to entertainment, destroying feelings of reverence and encouraging the veneration of particular preachers–are right on the money. I would not word his criticisms in the same way, perhaps, but he brought up problems with modern Christianity that I had never considered results of television.

The Koran calls Christians “People of the Book.” It isn’t far wrong. Christianity has been firmly bound to writing for the full length of its existence. To damage that heritage by an addiction to electronics would be nothing less than tragic. Amusing Ourselves to Death is not the Bible. It is not perfect. But it is earth-shattering.

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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Nonfiction


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