Amusing Ourselves to Death

November 4, 2009

To *muse* is to think, and just as to be amoral is to be not moral, to be amused is to be not thinking. Of the media we consume, how much of it is designed to get us thinking, and how much is designed to amuse us?

Postman’s main thesis, expanding upon Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message”:

Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.

And later:

I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans from a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.

Postman’s observations seem astounding modern, so it’s easy to forget that he was writing in 1985. But now and then you get a reminder both sad and quaint when he mentions the impossibility of packaging a full argument into a 60-second sound byte, for alas, today’s average is a mere 9 seconds.

Television, politics, action

The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing, except offer them up as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Well, maybe not nothing. We can always be cynical about it. Certainly, The Daily Show does a service in ridiculing the obvious lies and doublespeak in politics and media. But reading Postman I now see the danger in its packaging this analysis as entertainment. By sheer virtue of it existing on a screen, we’ve been trained to react to it with a passive “Yeah, those guys are douchebags,” but this is even worse than inaction, as it gives us the impression we’ve done something when we haven’t. Marx needs an update: it’s irony that’s the opiate of the masses, at least the masses under 30.

More information does not make us more informed

He writes, “The principle strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it, or analyze it.” And he brings Thoreau back from Walden Pond to back him up wittily:

We are in a great haste to construct magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

What, really, is an opinion?

[Our] opinions are of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. (107)

Opinions must be justified: I think X because Y. What we now call our “opinions” are more properly referred to as emotions or gut reactions. A negative opinion of the president’s economic policy would involve an understanding of its goals and valid arguments why those goals aren’t worthwhile or, alternatively, why his strategy won’t accomplish its worthy goals. “Gah! Socialism! Scary!” is not an opinion, it’s a grunt. If I can’t make a valid argument for something I claim to believe, then it will be impossible for anyone to prove me wrong, and a willingness to being proven wrong is a precondition for rational discourse.