Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Several years ago I skim-read a book by Neil Postman provocatively entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. It described the influence of television culture on public discourse, showing how it shortened attention spans and created a popular demand to be incessantly entertained. Now, with both thumbs firmly engaged in the Internet age, it strikes me that this book's thesis and particularly its title are prophetic.

Think of it: Postman wrote before the advent of reality TV, which has blurred the line between entertainment and the entertained. We now watch "people just like us" on TV, subjected to all sorts of humiliating situations. "American Idol" certainly leads the charge--and MTV's "Jersey Shore" plumbs the depths--of such reputed entertainment. I've also noticed that reality TV has extended many people's 15 minutes of fame. Now, questionable "entertainers" like Snooky (what a name!) become household names, while persons with limited or no talent at all (Paris Hilton comes to mind) become pop icons.

But think of this, too: Postman also wrote before the advent of the Internet, texting, and smart phones with multiple apps. We now have the capability of plugging into entertainment (if it can be called that) 24/7. Our noses buried in screens, we grow addicted to pixellated stimulation and many of us find ourselves rushing to check scores, emails, tweets, Facebook live feed, news and much else whenever we feel a hint of boredom or the need to unwind. And whatever other discretionary time we have is whiled away with such gripping games as "Angry Birds".

My fear, and the fear voiced by an increasing chorus of the concerned, is that we're now raising a generation of people who will never know the joy of a good book by a fireplace...or a quiet walk in the woods...or the focused discipline of writing an actual letter...or the joy of getting a thoughtful letter from a loved one...or even the sustained sharpening of a spirited debate with a friend. Thanks to our ubiquitous technology our information base grows wider by the second...but are we becoming shallower at the same rate? I wonder and I worry, to be honest. Especially as I share in the raising of my two sons.

I like my iPhone as much as the next person. But I've also enjoyed re-reading a series of novels lately. It's wonderfully relaxing to find my mind engaged and entertained at the same time--in a way that digital technology has yet to do. I'd be interested in your thoughts? Am I terribly old-school?


John said...

i've thought about this a lot (and read both this book, as well as "technopoly"). a few distinct points

1. tweets, for better or worse, are the smoke signals of our times. it really comes down to a question of long form, vs. short form. a tweet is short form. a book is long form. of course, i'm sure there have been some tweets that are better than some entire books, but that is beside the point. i agree that our current trend in mass communications (and personal communications ) are towards messages that are short and immediate. this limits both the amount of data, and the amount of context surrounding any communications.

i agree that something suffers: thoughtfulness. if you don't have a depth of experience, and you only have 140 characters, how can you communicate complex thoughts? i just saw chris hedges speak a few weeks ago. his argument was lengthy, but the path was essential.

2. with regards to personal lifestyle, i really feel this is preference. a certain minister in chico have gone round-and-round about whether or not an ipod is an assault on ones relationship to the world. he finds it very alienating. as for me, sometimes a soundtrack is just what i need. i think ipods are brilliant cultural artifacts. others disagree. but i don't believe "wired" is any less holy than "unwired".

3. regardless of the impact of this trend, it's here to stay. it's what is. so what do we make of it, and how do we use it? as someone who lives a pretty wired life, i actually think being "not wired" is totally valid. i think you can choose not to be on facebook and be very happy. i don't think being on facebook will kill you either.

i do agree that it's overwhelming. it's an always on firehose.

for some reason this reminds me of a great TED talk by Barry Scwartz called the paradox of choice. i think it's because it represents another cultural phenomenon that is new on the scene that forces people to adapt.

anyway, interesting post.

Carl Hofmann said...

I certainly respect your perspective as a Christian and as someone from the industry. I completely agree that our digital communication technology is here to stay; the question I have, in many quarters, is what is its impact on culture and, ultimately, human health and well-being? I'm intrigued by Shane Hipps' work which suggests that we may be rewiring neural pathways in the brain and moving toward a much more emotive, intuitive (i.e. non-linear, less rational) society. I don't believe these new media are neutral in their impact. There's much to be gained by these advancements; but what's to be lost, I wonder? Hence my post!

Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts.

John said...

well, in a way, i think "ideas are lost". at least great ideas. you can't communicate grace in a tweet, and it is definitely harder to concentrate on the moment when you're being pinged from all directions.

but in line with postman, i would say that these mediums are pretty superficial. sarah palin won't sid down for a proper challenging interview, but will instead post provocative slogans on her facebook page.

re: i agree that our brains will change, probably for the worse, mostly because they have to.