I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death this past weekend. Wow. Perspective altering. Here's my first stab at a review/report/schwatever if you're interested:
Riveting, necessary, and incisive are all words that could qualify Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, and yet fall short of this superb work.
Neil Postman's thesis is that the medium of communication enables and constrains the message it carries, so much so that one could say “the medium is the message.” Postman examines how information and meaning are conveyed, received, and understood via different forms of media and reviews a history of typographic, telegraphic, photographic, and videographic media. Within each medium he surveys the status of public discourse and describes its strengths and weaknesses, clearly favoring the “Age of Typography” and the necessary life of the mind with its rigorous rationality. The emphasis of the text is as the subtitle suggests on “public discourse in the age of show business,” where the groundwork of the epistemology of print in the early chapters exposes the banal amusements of television. Postman shows how the television is the ultimate expression of the tripartite sins of telegraphy - the irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence of information and their associated thoughts – and thus the natural end of the design of the medium is solely entertainment. The sinister turn is that the medium itself is inherently trivializing yet enticing – who would turn away endless or limitless pleasure? So much is this threat present that all forms of serious and important matter in society have been trivialized by television (Postman provides examples from politics, law, education, and religion to name a few,) as the whole of the culture is subsumed in the mire of thoughtless (dis-)engagement. It is from this precipice of unconscious cerebral death through entertainment that Postman hopes to retrieve us. Tragically, the only restoration apparent to him is through the system of education which is already embracing this cancer as of the 1980's, and in this reviewer's time has accepted it whole hog.
The power of Postman's work in “pulling back the curtain,” as it were, on our culture is almost too much to move beyond. For the reviewer's generation, the obvious analogue is found (shamefully) in the film: The Matrix. Wherein the main character is shown that his entire experience has been contrived and that reality, as it actually exists is something quite different from his current understanding of the world due to some technology (seemingly) beyond his control.
This example highlights how the book is valuable for the student of culture and the student of communicating cross-culturally. First, as an examination of American culture at different moments, under varying dominant media, one can see how cultures operate in the marketplace of ideas. The implications of different media are explored and the reader is opened to the possibility of such examinations being applicable to other aspects of culture. The second immediate value for students of culture was alluded to above, but explicitly is that: Americans are confronted with American culture. This occasion of a critical view of one's own culture provides one a necessary step towards understanding that everyone, everywhere, is enculturated. Everyone is both empowered and encumbered by their own individual and community experience thus affecting how they perceive truth: both in physical and spiritual reality. Here the body blow is felt that television shapes our understanding of the world, and once confronted with this reality, one can begin to think critically about what shapes reality in adjacent cultures.
A possible critique of Postman's work is that it prizes the relics of the modernist era neglecting future advancement of human thought and work. Postman's prize is rationality as expressed in the age of typography, whereas postmoderns find this intellectual utopia inadequate.