"Amusing Ourselves to Death": From 1985 to 2021

Cultural Conversation in the Age of Visual Media

Published February 12th, 2021

All content we consume is optimized for our attention. Too boring, and we won't take the time. According to Neil Postman, this is "Amusing Ourselves to Death". Entertainment has become closely interwoven with popular culture, politics, business, and the general zeitgeist. "Amusing Ourselves to Death" was published in 1985, but it showed that the problems we see with the Internet today may have come well before it. I've highlighted a few of my favorite quotes and ideas from the book, and reflected on their application in today's day and age, nearly 40 years later.

1. "Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations." (p. 16)

Television is far past being the center point of cultural conversation. Television is the culture. Today's forms of television are TikTok, Youtube, Twitch, Instagram, and Twitter. What happens on these platforms is what's happening in the real world, and moments here define culture (through memes, pop culture, political discourse, or trends).

2. "It has been demonstrated many times that a culture can survive misinformation and false opinion. It has not yet been demonstrated whether a culture can survive if it takes the measure of the world in twenty-two minutes. Or if the value of its news is determined by the number of laughs it provides." (p. 113)

This idea surprised me. Misinformation today is presented as solely an Internet problem, but it has been around ever since inter-human communication began. The Internet merely exacerbated its speed of spread. Our culture may survive misinformation, but we may not survive the lack of objectivity present in our media.

Everything we consume is tinted by the source. News media is the closest we get to the truth, and it still presents a pessimistic outlook on the state of the world. The objective truth is nearly impossible to find. We can barely get a long-form article on major events, let alone a balanced reflection on the event's outcomes and implications.

3. "But television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium. Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past. Everything presented in moving pictures is experienced as happening 'now'." (p. 136)

This is even more prevalent with timeline-centric social media. Sari Azout puts it brilliantly in Check your Pulse #55: "Our feed-based information architecture is obsessed with the present". Although one can argue that television itself has now shifted to allow for rewatching and nostalgia, the most popular platforms have raced towards fleeting obsolescence. Virality lasts a few days until it is onto the next arbitrary event/song/video that reaches new peaks in popularity.

4. "Television is the new state religion run by a private Ministry of Culture (the three networks), offering a universal curriculum for all people, financed by a form of hidden taxation without representation." (p. 140)

I loved this idea. Television, or now modern media outlets & algorithm curators, are the state religion. They control what people see and know. Manufactured consent by these identities is a real risk, if it isn't already the case.

While television was once controlled by three networks, there are now many other players in the game. Companies like Netflix, Disney, and Amazon produce popular culture touchstones, while apps like Instagram, Tiktok, and Youtube allow for individuals to get their share of the pie. One one hand it can be argued that our media is more democratized; on the other hand, a few large companies still control exactly what we see and can share.

The hidden taxation is our time and attention. We don't realize we are giving it away until it's already gone. Whether it is a tax we truly wanted to pay or not is for the individual to decide.

6. "Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments,...then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility" (p. 155)

Big media and big tech do not make us watch them; we choose to consume what they put out (although, it can be very difficult to opt out). Our public discourse takes place on platforms like Twitter, where every piece of 280 characters is trivia. There are no longer lines between entertainment, politics, social issues, or the truth. It is not obvious what "culture-death" may entail, but American society may be hurdling towards something near it.

Any of the problems described of television are 10x'd in todays form of media. Although the book presents a rather pessimistic view of television, it is important to recognize these shortcomings in order to shape our media platforms for longevity. Many people are working on how to adapt our media platforms against these forces. I am optimistic that we will veer away from "culture-death" and towards using media to amplify our culture and knowledge. I end this article with one last thought:

"What afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking." -Postman