Remembering a Prophet
Neil Postman's words live on twenty years after his death.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Neil Postman’s death at age 72. Postman spent most of his career at New York University as a Professor of Media Ecology and wrote more than 20 books, mostly about the effects of the electronic media on our lives. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) is arguably his most famous work.
It is important to note that Postman died at the dawn of the computer age, and well before the emergence and proliferation of social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, Twitter, Netflix, etcetera. He aimed most of his criticism at television, but that criticism is as relevant to today’s electronic social media as it continues to be for television. Statistics show that in 2022, North American adults spent an average of seven hours per day looking at screens of all sorts. An average of at least three hours per day of screen time is spent on non-work-related viewing, namely amusement.
The show of society
Postman eloquently and convincingly argued that television was transforming our culture into one vast area for show business. All public affairs – politics, religion, news, education, journalism, commerce – have been turned into a form of entertainment. He further posited that television has taken the place of the printed word at the center of our culture, and in doing so has trivialized the once serious and coherent discussion of all public issues. Our political and religious leaders today depend more on camera angles and showmanship than on reason and rhetoric. He pointed out that (supposedly) neutral news reporters refer to their programs as shows.
Today Postman would be appalled, but not surprised, at watching the current debacle of what passes for political discourse in the electronic media, where former television and media personalities (hello Donald Trump) are now considered serious political leaders. He, who wrote out his books long-hand, would be amazed that 40 Twitter characters now pass for serious political discourse, and that university students spend more time on their phones than they do on reading culturally important books, including the Bible. (Postman was Jewish and cherished both the Old and New Testaments).
Choosing the Pixel
Many people in post WWII days feared that George Orwell’s 1949 book 1984 might accurately predict a future dominated by dictatorial government forces. Postman writing a year after 1984 suggested we should equally fear the world of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. In Huxley’s book, masses of people voluntarily give up their freedom through their addictions to hallucinatory drugs and other mindless technologies that take away their capacity to think in favour of those that lead to sensory titillation and endless amusement.
In many ways I believe that Postman’s prophetic fear has become a current reality, including among many of those who claim (often falsely) that the Word, not the Pixel, is their source of life.