The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Amusing Ourselves To Death: My Thoughts (Part 1)


I have learned so much from Postman's discussion of America and media. In fact, I just posted on my Facebook page that everyone in the United States needs to read this book. I had never even thought of analyzing the way in which different mediums shape the way we view truth and epistemology, and even what we consider worth investing our time and energy into knowing. Postman opens his book with the amazing statement that "Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death." (p.3-4). Observing society today, and after hearing Postman's arguments in the first five chapters of his book, I would have to agree with his assessment. The fact that he said this in 1985 is incredible. If anything, the advent of the internet and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have only further facilitated what Postman calls "a peek-a-boo world," meaning that we have one bit of irrelevant and largely pointless information pop up before us, immediately followed by another, and another, ad infinitum, often coming from people we do not know (many of my friends on Facebook I do not know personally, yet often I still take the time to read their statuses that appear on my news feed).

Now, instead of devoting our time to laying out rational thought through writing on subjects of actual importance in the real world and/or reading books to sharpen our rational thought and line of reasoning, we fill our minds with pictures and images from the television, or the internet that are largely devoid of meaningful and pertinent content, having no genuine connection to our lives. Postman claims that we are amusing ourselves to death, having so much useless information that we don't know what to do with it. The result is that we have tried to ascribe some sort of meaning to all this information, by using pictures, emotional pleas and manipulations like many of today's televangelists, rather than well thought out, coherent, rational arguments like the great Calvinist preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Postman even claims that the crossword puzzle and games like trivial pursuit, and I would imagine television shows like Jeopardy, are all a result of this overload of disconnected information and the attempt to ascribe some importance and meaning to them.

In the 18th and 19th century, reading was king in the United States, and listening to important political and religious issues interested most everyone. The Great Awakening took place during this time, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates did as well in the mid 1850's. At this time, it was custom for two people to debate with one another for up to seven hours in front of a live audience out in the open air. Today, must church goers cannot muster the strength to listen attentively to a sermon lasting more than twenty or thirty minutes. I agree with Postman that this is largely due to a blitzkrieg mindset and mentality that television, the internet, cell phones, and other technology have helped cultivate. As Postman points out, this all started with the telegraph. For the first time, space and time were collapsed, and news could travel around the world in seconds.

The result, Postman argues, and rightly I believe, is that we now have an overload, a glut of information, where we take far more interest in the private lives of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen, or some other celebrity, than we do in science, politics, the sick and needy, war, religion, and the like. This shift in interest, from important things like science, curing diseases, politics, religion, and so on, to being more concerned about the love lives of celebrities, is a result of the medium of television according to Postman. The media dictates to us what we should value as important, what we should believe about important issues, and what we should devote most of our time to in our lives. Television, naturally, de-emphasizes rational thought and replaces it with an emphasis on that which is aesthetically appealing, or sounds nice, and is entertaining, regardless if it is even true or not, or relevant or important or not.

I believe it is clear that Postman is spot on. Today most people could care less about a speech on the cosmos, or reading a book about different theological interpretations of God and the Bible. We indeed are amusing ourselves to death.

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