Are We ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death”?

Two classic books, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell, the first published in 1932 and the second published in1949, offered dark visions of modern society. Orwell’s prediction, published at the start of the Cold War and emergence of the totalitarian threat posed by Soviet Russia, initially seemed far more real and far more compelling. But Neil Postman argued in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published at the height of the age of television, that Huxley’s vision was far more prophetic.

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares,” Postman wrote.

“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell‘s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley‘s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“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. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”  

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Postman went on to make these points, as collected in these quotes on Goodreads:

  • Television creates cultural values: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
  • TV culture bombards us with trivia: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
  • No time to think on television: “But it is not time constraints alone that produce such fragmented and discontinuous language. When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art.”
  • Nature of television “news”: “Of course, in television’s presentation of the “news of the day,” we may see the Now…this” mode of discourse in it’s boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.”
  • How print changed the world: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with that growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America.”
  • On the irrational nature of television advertising: The foundation of capitalism is rational, well-informed buyers and sellers operating in a free market. Buyers make claims and a well-informed seller asks questions and, competitors, perhaps, seek to refute the claims and assert that their products are superior. The free market will sort it out. But on television, Postman argues, rational claims are substituted for images. “Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people,” he writes. “The truth or falsity of an advertiser’s claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald’s commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama–a mythology, if you will–of handsome people selling, buying and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claim are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.”

Postman was writing in the age of television, and some of what he says is dated. In the age of the Internet, we can no longer claim, as he does, that we are deprived of authentic information, as almost all of it is now digitized and online, available for download with one or two clicks.

But he argued that when a medium’s highest value is to entertain and not to inform, “we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed,” and losing our ability to think critically. “Learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories,” he wrote.

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