Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

There’s No Business But Show Business

Media shapes viewpoints and thoughts. What you watch, read, and listen to will impact both your thought patterns and worldviews.

In today’s 24/7 news culture, you can spend the entire day in a perpetual state of fear and apocalypse. Wars, famine, cultural upheaval, deaths, plagues, and other disasters occur somewhere every day. If you live in a peaceful country these events have little bearing on how you live your life. Between television and social media, these events dominate our news cycle every day. Not even the weekend brings a reprieve to the vast amounts of information hawked over the digital airwaves.

In his 1985 books, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that television turned news, critical thought, and education into show business. When did you last watch a news segment that actually provided an in-depth, commercial free, extensive look into a single topic for more than thirty seconds?

Traditional media revolve around commercial breaks.  A deep dive into a complex story becomes difficult when breaking for segments about Whoppers, upcoming award shows, and the newest erectile dysfunction cure every five minutes.

I recognize the irony of writing about a book detailing the dangers of pure entertainment on a communication medium Postman might find worse for intellectual development than the television. One can only imagine the derision and sadness with which Postman would view Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, and this blog.

Written in 1985, yet still relevant today, Postman contends that our nation’s future will resemble the civilization depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World instead of the one predicted by George Orwell in 1984.While both stories represent a repressed future, they differ in the how society will arrive at a state of intellectual suppression.

In 1984, Orwell posits that a “Big Brother” style government will suppress speech and dictate social norms through misinformation, misdirection, and intentional distortion of information. Indeed, this future currently exists in China and the broken culture of Russia. Societies built around government, collectivism, and the “community good” are more likely to “progress” towards complete government control. As seen in the events currently unfolding in Hong Kong, Venezuela, and North Korea. Orwell’s future already exists, only not in western society.

When a population adopts ideas of individualism, limited government, and liberty, the binds of pure “Big Brother” control become harder to manifest. Yet a more sinister ideal can take root: death from amusement. Entertainment, by definition, seeks to provide a reprieve from the realities of existence. Compelling narratives packaged in 90 to a 130 minutes allows viewers to “experience” and “see” the world without ever having to leave home. We can even watch medical procedures on the television under the guise of “education”, but do you remember anything “educational”?

Even the realm of school revolves around screens nowadays. Parents send their children off to school with the latest in smartphone technology to spend all day sitting in front of a computer screen. Then kids come home and can amuse themselves by playing video games and watching something on YouTube, Tik Tok, the television, or Instagram. “White Collar” workers spend all day in front of computer screens to come home and “Netflix and Chill”. Families can sit together in the same room and never speak to one another.

You can spend an entire week in modern American Life without ever having to take a break from looking at a screen. Sleep becomes the last refuge from the dominance of the digital world. Entertainment exists everywhere all the time. Our current culture mimics the bleak world painted by Huxley in Brave New World, as argued by Postman.

Brave New World depicts a population completely enslaved to the idea of amusement, leisure, and laughter. Dark thoughts, philosophical arguments, linguistic gymnastics, and analytical discourse on various viewpoints cannot thrive in a culture obsessed with thirty second soundbites and manufactured celebrity “news”. Today’s population likely knows more about the inner workings of the Kardashian media empire than the history behind the assembly and division of power of the American form of government.

As Postman argued: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” [Excerpted from Amusing Ourselves to Death, 20th Anniversary Edition]

Through the advent of visual media, politics, religion, news, athletics, education, commerce, and our own personal lives have become a never-ending form of show business. Everything must vacillate between the two extremes of pure happiness and a bleak apocalypse. The rather boring mundanity of “reality” amuses no one, which is why we post pictures of our “exotic” vacation to a far-flung destination but never share about our clogged kitchen sink (unless it erupted into a disgusting geyser that we happened to capture on our phone).

Postman contends that the medium of communication shapes the culture. Communication on the internet and television thrives on graphics and images, not words.

The television exists to supply a never-ending stream of entertainment.

An average length shot on network television lasts 3.5 seconds. This means the eye never rests and your brain does not have time to process information since something new always appears around the corner. By keeping information tidily packaged and changing, the viewer achieves instantaneous emotional gratification. Good news always follows bad news, and vice versa so your emotions never stay focused on one feeling for any serious amount of time. News Anchors and pundits deliver pre-scripted tidbits because the act of thinking does not make compelling viewing. We would rather watch people argue over each other in raised voices for five minute than watch someone admit to not knowing anything about a topic and needing to think about a proper response. Thinking does not translate well into performance.

Postman argues that the rise of television transformed the political arena into another form of entertainment. We no longer pick candidates based upon values and political philosophy, but on how they “look” while presenting an idea. Style trumps substance.

Overall, Amusing Ourselves to Death, presents an interesting thesis on how western culture, political discourse, and our modes of relating with one another changed with the invention of television and instantaneous news.

How do you think digital media impacts your life, for the better and the worse?

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 2005, Penguin Books, ISBN: 9780143036531

Themes Explored: nonfiction, sociology, media, communications, psychology, politics, culture, philosophy

Synopsis: Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show business demands of the television age, we must recognize the ways in which the media shape our lives and the ways we can, in turn, shape them to serve out highest goals. (From Goodreads)

The Adjustment Bureau

Are we just puppets?

  • Director: George Nolfi
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly
  • Screenplay: George Nolfi
  • Based on Novella by: Philip Dick
  • Music By: Thomas Newman
  • Cinematography: John Toll
  • Running Time: 106 Minutes
  • Premiered: March 4, 2011
  • DVD Release: June 21, 2011

Synopsis: The affair between a politician and a ballerina is affected by mysterious forces keeping the lovers apart. (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: The Adjustment Bureau is similar to The Matrix and Inception in that it also explores the concept of free will and predestination. Based off a Philip Dick short story, the movie explores the effect of life adjustment. These legions of adjusters who manipulate events in order to make sure everything goes according to plan. Of course the narrative never really explains whose plan the adjusters are following, they just work off the book of predetermined life courses. The film is not a deep exploration about time and decisions, instead it is a romantic tinged exploration of fate versus choice.

While The Adjustment Bureau is not a serious film it has an intriguing plot, exploring why some people are unlucky in love. In this case, out lovelorn hero is a politician named David Norris.  Matt Damon is perfectly cast as a congressional candidate who is increasingly averse to his chose profession.  One fateful evening David finds his career in jeopardy because of some salacious phots acquired by the New York Post. That same evening, David walks into a men’s restroom at the Waldorf Astoria and encounters Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Elise’s devil-may-care attitude intrigues David, but security chases her out and he fears that she is gone forever. This sets up the main climax because Elise and David were never meant to meet, even though they find themselves drawn to one another.

David then sets out to find Elise but finds his attempts hampered by mysterious forces. These forces turn out to be men wearing suits and fedoras who constantly duck into/out of random doors. These adjusters are Harry and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery). They for the Adjustment Bureau and go around making corrections to lives that have gone askew.  Such as David and Elise meeting. Mitchell tries to convince David that pursuing Elise will ruin her life. However, the heart wants what the heart wants and David blithely ignores the warning. This causes David and Elise to start exploring the rectilinear world of Manhattan and the path of crisscrossing wormholes, which are not subjected to the laws of time/space.

This is where the film really let the ball drop. Harry and Richardson are these all-knowing beings who have knowledge about future events and are tasked with putting people back on the path designed by the Chairman. So Harry and Richardson spend all their time trying to keep David and Elise apart. These guys have supernatural powers, they can access a series of doors that permit them to travel around Manhattan in seconds. However, these abilities are not explained and what they can/cannot do is never totally clear. This makes their involvement overly convoluted and confusing. Instead of coming across as an ominous presence, the adjusters seem more like convenient plot devices. Whenever David and Elise are close to finding happiness, in swoops the adjusters to change the script. I would have liked a more detailed exploration of the mythos behind the adjusters.

Unlike The Matrix and Inception, Bureau misses the mark focuses on romance over suspense. Damon and Blunt own every scene they are in, their characters really pop off the screen. This is by far Damon’s most romantic role and he does a great job portraying a lovelorn guy. Blunt is charming as the free-spirited Elise. They have great onscreen chemistry and sell the whole star-crossed lovers scenario. Anthony Mackie and John Slattery are shortchanged and do not have much to do onscreen. The narrative would have been stronger if the romantic arc was relegated to a subplot. Instead, the film should have explored the tension between David and the adjustors. Most of the plot resolution occurs too early and does fulfill the suspense hinted at in the beginning of the film. At the end of the film, I still had questions about the adjustors. Are they humans or angels? Why was Norris singled out from every other adult male on Earth? Do the adjustors monitor the entire world or just Manhattan? Why is the Chairman so interested in David and Elise? Also, the narrative barely explores the theological differences between free will and predestination.

Perhaps the best character in the film is Manhattan. The city is gorgeously represented and the cinematography makes the city sparkle. The screenplay was well-written and the main characters were well developed. I hope Blunt and Damon do another romantic type film, they were the highlight of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film. It just needed more depth in order to be amazing instead of adequate.

 

 

Top 5 Dystopian Novels

What does surveillance mean to you?

  1. 1984-George Orwell

Written in 1948, this novel is George Orwell’s dystopian prediction about the future. 1984 presents a “negative utopia”, a haunting vision of humanity — a world with language control, brainwashing, and thought police. This is the story of Winston Smith, a worker in Records Department in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite and distort history to fit the government’s narrative. In order to protest Big Brother, Winston decides to write a journal, an act punishable by death. However, Winston wants to cling to his shreds of humanity in an inhuman world. But he is constantly watched, telescreens track his every move. Nowhere is safe.  This is the reality of 1984; Winston lives in a world recovering from a global atomic world. Winston lives in Airstrip One (aka the United Kingdom), which is a province of Oceania (one of the three superstates). The novel follows Winston’s intellectual rebellion, his illegal romance with Julia, and his eventual reeducation by O’Brien of the Thinkpol. This book depicts a terrifying future and total annihilation of original human thought.

1984, Signet Classic, 1950, ISBN: 9780451524935

  1. Brave New World– Aldous Huxley

“Community, Identity, Stability” is the motto of the utopian World State. The World Controllers have crafted the ideal society through genetic engineering, mind control, and recreational sex and drugs. Everyone is a happy consumer and never questions the system. Citizens take a daily dose of “soma”, all babies are born and raised in laboratories, and entertainment comes in the form of “Feelie”, movies that stimulate sights, hearing, and touch. Because everyone is constantly happy, violence does not exist in this utopian society. Only Bernard Marx feels that something is missing and feels the need to break free from the societal constraints. A visit to one of the Savage Reservations, a place where non-engineered society still exists, Bernard stumbles upon something that may cure his distress. Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece takes the idea of mass-production and consumerism and projects it far into the future. Except humanity is the mass-produced commodity.

Brave New World, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006, ISBN: 9780060850524

  1. Handmaidens Tale-Margaret Atwood

This is one of the few dystopian novels that directly address the role of woman in a totalitarian future. In the future, do women control their own bodies? Or are will they be consigned to a second class status and traded amongst the men of the elite class? What happens when a fundamentalist religion takes hold and enslaves those deemed unworthy? The heroine, Offred, is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Once a day, she is permitted to leave the Commander’s house and walk to the food market. Everything at the market is depicted in pictures because women are not permitted to read. Handmaids are fertile women assigned to elite couples who are unable to conceive. Commander Fred and Offred have conjugal relations once a month in an attempt to conceive a child. Handmaidens are only valuable if their ovaries are viable, barren handmaidens are quickly dismissed. This new reality is torture because Offred remembers when she lived with her husband and daughter; when she had a job; money of her own, and the right to knowledge. In this new future, all that is forever gone. Now she is only Offred and with each passing month, her value diminishes as she has yet to fall pregnant. The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling depiction of a society that does not value women and views people has nothing more than a commodity to be used by society.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Anchor Books, 1998, ISBN: 9780385490818

  1. The Giver-Lois Lowry

Welcome to the perfect society. Where there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place. There is no greed, lust, or any controlling emotion. Differences have been eradicated and we are at last equal. Jonas lives in a perfect world of sameness. Everything is under control and there is no war or hardship. The Community makes all the decisions for the good of society. When a child turns twelve, they are assigned their permanent role in society. The Community studies each child in order to fit their gifts to the community’s needs. On Jonas’s twelfth birthday, he is chosen to become the next Receiver of Memories. The Giver begins to train Jonas in the history of humanity. For The giver holds the memories of pain and pleasure from the world before The Community. Now Jonas is destined to carry on this burden for the next generation. Once he learns the truce, the world will never be the same. I like this book because it is blunt and to the point. It is well written and the narrative moves quickly.   Also, I though the movie was a decent adaption of the novel.

The Giver, HMH Books for Young Readers, Reprint, 2014, ISBN: 9780544336261

  1. A Clockwork Orange– Anthony Burgess

England, in the near future, has an extremely violent subculture that encourages youth violence. Society is ruled by a repressive, totalitarian super state. Ordinary citizens have become blind to the rapid growth of the violent youth culture. Instead, citizens prefer to exist in a state of blind stupor. Alex, the protagonist, is a fifteen year old thug. This novel follows Alex’s violent exploits and run-ins with the state authorities. Alex narrates his exploits using the teen slang of nadsat, which is a hybrid of Russian and Cockney English. He leads a gang of criminals-Dim, Pete, and Georgie. Together they terrorize the streets by robbing and beating men and raping women. When not engaging in violence, they frequent the Korowa Milkbar, a place that serves drug laced milk. The state has decided to reform Alex, but “at what cost”? A Clockwork Orange deals with the differences between good and evil and the cost of human freedom. Do criminals deserve the chance of freedom? Or must society attempt redemption at any cost? This novel is different from the other four because it explores a dystopian future from the perspective of the criminal underclass. This novel is not for everyone, the slang is incredibly difficult to read. And the depictions of violence are rather disturbing.

A Clockwork Orange, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, ISBN: 9780393312836

1984

Big Brother is watching…..

Themes Explored: totalitarianism, psychological manipulation, physical control, control over history/information, technology, language usage, mind control, urban decay, big brother government, torture, relationship, hope

Synopsis: Winston Smith rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. This new world demands absolute obedience and controls the populace via all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother. Winston is a diligent and skillful worker but secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.

Review: Originally published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) is a classic dystopian novel about the logical progression of modern society and government. George Orwell penned this tale shortly after the end of World War II and his liberal viewpoints are evident. This over-politicized world, society is ruled by a totalitarian government that monitors and controls all thoughts and actions. In the sixty-six years since publication, the many of the terms and concepts explored in this novel have entered into common usage. The most popular terms being: Big Brother, doublethink, Orwellian, thought-crime, Newspeak, telescreen, 2+2=5, and memory hole. TIME Magazine listed 1984 as one of 100 Best English Language novels published from 1923-2005. It was also listed as number 8 on the BBC’s The Big Read survey. The novel still resonates today as technology erodes privacy and society becomes increasingly connected.

In Orwell’s dystopian future, nuclear war has divided the world into three repressive superstates. The majority of the story is set in Oceania in a city known as Airstrip One, formerly known as London. Winston Smith is a middle-aged bureaucrat employed at the Ministry of Truth.  Winston is a lower member of The Party and feels hemmed in with all the rules. His job is too change historical information in order to portray the government and Big Brother (the party leader) in the best possible light. However, Winston is consumed with revolutionary ideas and records his anti-governmental thoughts in a diary. He thinks there is no way to escape the all-seeing government until he meets Julia. A much younger woman, Julia convinces him to sneak away and become her illicit lover. Even though he has a nagging fear of beng caught, Winston takes Julia up on her offer. Though he cannot imagine what awaits him when O’Brien captures him and takes him to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is both a horror story and a political commentary. Orwell uses his narrative to warn against the dangers of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.  This dystopian society has conditioned everyone to say one think, follow one ideology, and use only the official language. And the “proles” only role in society is to do menial work in order to support the governing class. The narrative is an interesting take on the recording of history. Part of the disturbing nature of dystopia is the depiction of a world where the current ruling party rewrites history to reflect a different past. Also, in a colorless controlled world there is no laughter, art, freedom, or creativity. I would go crazy if anyone tried to control my thoughts or creativity. Poor Winston really pays the price for going against the party line. It is an interesting exploration of how the fundamental building blocks of society collapse when certain actions and words are forbidden. How can people form a revolution when they have no historical examples to follow or words to inspire?

A large part of the narrative is dedicated to a recitation of the Brotherhood’s manifesto. This includes an exploration of social democratic ideals and a powerful disavowal of fascism. The last half of the novel deals with Winston reading the manifesto and questioning why The Party has stayed in power. And Winston is constantly plagued by the question as to why this has occurred.  Winston finally achieves his answer when he asks O’Brien why and the answer is: power only for the sake of power. Orwell is trying to show the utter hopelessness of social power keeping itself in power because it is confident in its own immortality. And this only occurs because the government controlled society keeps the population downtrodden and oppressed. This is meant to instill horror in the reader as a direct parallel to the thorough indoctrination of Winston. Instead of successfully rebelling against the government and loving Julia, Winston only feels love for Big Brother. He meets Julia again and has no feelings for her whatsoever. His oppression is complete.

I think the novel’s lasting power lies in the narrative, not just the discussion on social theory. Orwell interweaves the entire range of human experience into the narrative. Winston is a perfect hero who is tortured until he reaches the end of his psychological durability. As is common with most dystopia novels, the reader is never told why Winston is rebelling. We merely know that he decided to rebel. He is a thought criminal and the entire premise is built around this action. Everything Winston does is explored through his crime: his job altering history, his love affair with Julia, and his obsession with O’Brien. All of his emotions, frustrations, and sexuality are controlled by the Party in order to channel expressions of humanity into less socially destabilizing channels. Julia and Winston are even forced to participate in the Two Minute Hate as a form of catharsis and control. Every human experience we take for granted is controlled and manipulated by The Party. Thankfully, the book does not become overly philosophically. Orwell merely poses the questions and lets the reader argue over the outcomes.

Unfortunately, the last fourth of the novel is rather boring. While the images of Winston being tortured are horrific, the narrative comes to a grinding halt. A majority of this part of the novel details Winston reading the dry Brotherhood Manifesto and understanding The Party’s political theory. And no is surprised when the author is not who Winston originally thought. Drama wise, the narrative loses its footing with the torture sequences. There is a little too much theorizing and not enough action. However, the ending scenes between Winston and Julia are superbly written. Actually, their re-meeting is probably the strongest writing in the novel. Despite being sixty-six years old, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one the best dystopia novels in publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Signet, 1949, ISBN 9780451524935