On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 11-Conclusion
Amusing Ourselves to Death is not a long book — 163 pages of text. But it is not a “fast read.” There is much to contemplate and ponder. I have dedicated 11 different posts to its important arguments.
In the conclusion, Chapter 11, “The Huxleyan Warning,” Postman returns again to a motivating force behind the book: the contrast of social worlds depicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in their classics, Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.
Postman begins: “There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque” (155).
Postman does not deny that Orwellian tyranny and control exist in our world. But more and more, especially in the United States, he says, control is achieved by other means.
By the third paragraph, Postman is driving home his points.
“What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours” (155).
When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is re-defined 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” (155–56).
The stakes are now the highest they could be: the death of culture.
Postman finds that fighting against this control can be incredibly difficult. People are well trained to recognize and fight back against oppression and the imposition of ideology.
“But,” he writes, “what is happening in America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance” (157).
He despairs that Americans were not mindful of the fact that media have biases, that technologies presage changes in ways of thinking.
He says, “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple” (157).
Thus, Postman says, there are near insurmountable difficulties for anyone writing a book such as his. Not everyone believes a cure is needed, he says, and there may not be a cure. “But as a true-blue American who has imbibed the unshakable belief that where there is a problem, there must be a solution,” he concludes with suggestions (158).
He does not believe that it would ever be possible to eliminate or even control access to television (though he would like to ban or control political advertising).
Nor does Postman believe that one can improve the quality of television. He says, television is most useful as junk entertainment and most dangerous when it pretends to offer serious political discourse.
“We would all be better off if television got worse, not better,” he writes (157–58). “The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”
What is a culture to do?
Postman writes that the problem does not reside in what people watch. “The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch” (160).
People have given little thought or discussion to television and its role in their lives, Postman argues. They have given little thought to what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.
He asks people to talk back to their televisions, to begin asking questions.
Writing in the dawn of the computer age, Postman foresees even more dangers. He finds the computer to be a “vastly overrated technology” but writes: “I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper” (161).
He continues somewhat prophetically, “Thus, a central thesis of computer technology — that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data — will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved” (161).
Again, what is a culture to do?
Postman is desperate to provide an answer. He thus proposes a “desperate answer” — “to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem: our schools. This is the conventional American solution to all dangerous social problems, and is, of course, based on a naive and mystical faith in the efficacy of education” (162).
Can education really save us? Postman acknowledges, “The process rarely works” (162).
At book’s end, Postman aligns himself again with Huxley. “What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media” (163).
Just as Postman appreciates Huxley for having accurately foreseen how U.S social life might passively fall under oppression and control through spectacle and entertainment, we can appreciate Postman for directing us to how precisely this has happened: through the seemingly innocent technological innovation of television.