The late Neil Postman, professor of communication at NYU, aptly titled his landmark 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” The cover art on my well-worn paperback copy concisely symbolizes the book’s overall message: a family sitting on the couch in front of a television screen, but with no heads emerging from their clothing, a clustered group of “empty suits” — seemingly there, but not really there; no heads (and therefore no brains), mindlessly vacant, merely invisible air.
Postman’s main thesis was that we humans tend to embrace and adore those enticing electronic technologies that mesmerize us with amusement and escape yet that can at the same time deeply impair our motivation and capacity for thoughtful analysis, ethical reflection and civic action. He argued it’s not what we fear that will ultimately ruin us as a society but what we freely and delightedly give our attention to, our electronic media of unendingly entertaining distraction. Quaintly, in Postman’s day this primarily meant the medium of television, but decades later it means so much more.
With the coming of television, Americans, who had arguably at one time been among the most well-read citizens in the world, became a national audience of screeners hooked on endless “show biz” entertainment. More significantly, soon all of America’s major cultural institutions — including politics, television journalism, education, business, religion, professional sports and the law — devolved into “congenial adjuncts” of show biz, prompting Postman to proclaim that in the America of the 1980s “there’s no business but show business.” He argued that all of America had essentially become a Las Vegas-like entertainment stage, and of course real thinking can’t be done on a Las Vegas-like stage, wherever located, because it simply doesn’t play well. We love the very technologies that have undone our capacities to think.
Postman suggested there would be no need to ban or burn books in an American authoritarian state, as was done in Orwell’s novel 1984, because at the rate America was going as of the 1980s few Americans would be motivated or skilled enough to actually read any book of importance. There have been signs in the subsequent decades since Postman made his prophecy that he was right. The average American high school senior is reading at a sixth-grade level, and it was found by 2003 that a full 69 percent of college graduates were not competent enough to comprehend and process prose at the level of “proficiency” (according to a major study by the National Center for Education Statistics). A more recent study finds that males 18- to 24- years old spend about 4,000 percent more time on screen games, social media, watching the tube and skimming the ‘net than seriously reading anything. Postman was on the mark: For decades America has been amusing itself to death, and a future we are unprepared for is now staring us directly in the face.
Many of us looked around in 1984 and, like Postman, saw little blatant evidence of an Orwellian “Big Brother,” and breathed a sigh of relief. Yet as we Americans have continued to allow ourselves to be distracted by our now ever-present forms of electronic media infotainment into passivity and near-incapacitation in the decades since, signs abound that the surveillance and propaganda state has quietly — and firmly — enmeshed itself into our lives. Presidential discourse has been reduced to 280-character, simplistic sloganeering and name-calling as democracy and the world seriously suffer. Masses unreflectively follow with “click-whirr” mindless thumbs-up applause, severely out of alignment with the complexity of today’s planetary realities.
Postman long ago knew that the quality of a culture’s discourse is heavily affected by its media. In the 21st century, a front-stage show biz presidential tweetocracy has arrived with a vengeance, as a severe structural dismantling is taking place backstage behind the curtains, scenes and screens. We watch the late night TV comedians satirize the president, and we laugh, feeling as if by doing so we’ve done our part. As for “the base,” they cheer as America burns. We all, in our own ways, continue to amuse ourselves to death.
The one statistic offering hope: Most social reform movements began with less than 1 percent of the population initially getting committed and organized and then activating a nation to action. Today, instead of mostly amusing ourselves to death, can we more energetically begin to awaken ourselves to life?
Ronald D. Gordon is professor of communication at the University of Hawai’i - Hilo. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.