August 2, 2008
Don’t worry. I won’t be asking you to throw away your tv. That would be naive. And naivety is what the author Neil Postman says is what we are all guilty of with regards tv. To understand tv and to respond to its pervasiveness appropriately, we need to appreciate the earlier paradigm-shifting, epoch-making invention: the printing press.
But don’t worry, I am not going to give you a lecture on Johann Gutenberg’s invention in 1450, or its impact on literacy and on social and political change. I leave you to read the book for that. I will however, bring out a little anecdote from the book:
Abraham Lincoln, when he was canvassing support for his senatorship, perhaps sometime in the late 1850s, used to speak and debate with his opponents for hours in front of huge audiences. The audience hung on every word, followed complex and carefully worded arguments. In one of his debates, Lincoln suggested a break for dinner, and to resume afterwards. Everyone came back after dinner to listen to more speeches and debates. Those who were unable to attend read transcripts that were faithfully printed the very next day in the newspapers. This was the era when words—be they spoken or written—made the difference, not the image. Images, visual or still, may evoke emotions, but have they the ability to stimulate the intellect as powerfully as words?
In 1985, when Postman wrote this—incidentally the year after the Orwellian 1984—tv was not yet the force it is today. Today one can hardly wait for the MRT without watching an ad about some incredibly wealthy person pay for something with his freshly minted credit card, nor can one check email without some well-meaning friend forwarding a youtube.com link. Generations of children are growing up on the uncritical companionship of tv and the internet: amusing themselves to death.
Tv is pervasive and affects even our off-viewing lives. Everything is now entertainment—and is valued according to the amount of entertainment it provides. Serious public discourse is non-existent; all we want to hear is the soundbyte and the slogan. Complex arguments are presented in bullet points or worse, cartoons. Context and nuance are just too much detail. Everything is entertainment. Cooking is entertainment. Politics is entertainment. Sex is entertainment.
Even education needs to be fun. Children expect their schools to be like Sesame Street. No culture on earth before the advent of mass entertainment ever characterised education as ‘fun’. Education is hard work that requires discipline, drive and motivation on the part of the learner. We no longer want to learn, we want to be entertained. Entertainment is now the opiate of the masses. By the way, religion is now entertainment too, so Marx was, in this context, correct.
Live your life. TV, the internet or your video game does not provide you with experiences, it deprives you of it.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business