Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman

Read May 2006

In 1948, two new books shook the world with their visions of the future. The more stark and immediately terrifying one was, of course, Orwell's 1984; the other, less threatening, volume was Huxley's Brave New World.

Orwell's world was, of course, a caricature. It takes a staggering amount of resource to implement such a world, so few states have succeed and fewer still persisted. Despite this, his vision was so bleak, so unredeeming, that his remains the standard image that journalists like to evoke when they want to accuse governments of destroying our liberties.

Meanwhile, how has Huxley's vision fared?

The dismal message of this landmark book is that, while we've kept our eye out for Orwell's world all along, we have smoothly moved into living in Huxley's. Through our own compliance, our implicit assent, and our endless desire to be entertained, we have allowed the television to behave as our soma and let happen unto us what, were it made an explicit part of the social contract, we would never have accepted. Orwell was a cartoon, while Huxley is our reality—and we don't even know it. It is an account of media as epistemology.

This sort of message is typically the province of off-beat wingnut commentators, so it's easy to dismiss Postman's message. But in fact he's educated, intelligent, articulate, and surprisingly spot-on. For sure he's snippy in some places and snobbish in others, but his analysis of television is better than everything I've read in the genre it inspired. And his real concern is not a specific matter such as inert childhoods, but the broad problem of public discourse: emphasis both on public and on discourse, and its relationship to a democracy.

What is shocking is how current this book feels. Even though it was written in 1985, the news stories and the media formats and the nature of what passes for analysis and conversation all seem so current as to feel banal, until you remember when this was written. (What Postman would have done with such “innovations” as reality TV and the democritization of celebrity we do not know but we can only predict.) For what was billed as an improving medium, it seems to have had a remarkably effect even on itself.

Some of Postman's arugments could use revision in our time. Applied to our context, his critique seems to confuse the medium (the computer) with the ends (word processing versus Web publishing). Is this, then, really, an account of network effects, not about technologies? If, in the Web, we see a tentative return to the era of pamphleteering, where does Postman's critique stand? Sadly Postman is no longer with us to clarify.

The book also suffers from the curse of any polemic. Is it really fair to classify John Glenn as a mere “actor” (referring, here, to Glenn's first space trip—what Postman would have made of the blatantly self-serving second one!)? What would he make of channels such as HBO, who aren't under the control of advertisement in the same way mainstream free channels are, and isn't their creation a slight refutation of his critique? What would he make of the grainy, murky, yet wonderful science programs, produced by Jamia Milia Islamia, that I watched in the early days of Indian TV?

One could, and should, argue endlessly about these topics. What matters is how much an argument provokes you to think. If you read one media criticism book, consider making this the one.