Abusing Ourselves To Death
I’ve just finished re-reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death.”
Published in 1985, the book quickly became one of the most famous and influential pieces of media criticism of all time, second only to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Postman’s thesis is simple: The age of television, and in particular television news, had obliterated our attention spans and turned information into entertainment. As such, our world - he argues - has more in common with Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s 1984.
The book also introduced Postman’s theory of the “information-action ratio”...
The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.
Postman died in 2003, a year before the launch of Facebook, three years before Twitter and more than a decade before the election of Donald Trump. It’s tantalizing to wonder what he’d have made of the age of Social Media trolling as politics.
Certainly he’d recognize Donald Trump as the natural (if terrifying) extrapolation of the politics-as-entertainment phenomenon that began with Ronald Reagan. Similarly, Twitter’s 140 character limits are the logical (d)evolution of Postman’s five minute news bursts. The information-action ratio remains a significant problem, but with the added wrinkle that Twitter gives the illusion of activism and involvement, allowing news consumers to kid themselves that they actually do have control over the information they’re drowning in.
And yet, while much of today’s media cesspool seems like a natural progression of Postman’s warnings, there’s one significant difference between Postman’s dystopia and our own.
Postman’s point about Brave New World was that American news consumers watch the news as entertainment. Serious segments were packaged to maximise spectacle and excitement, to give viewers an informational high akin to Huxley’s soma.
Today I defy any news consumer to say they feel good about their addiction. Compared to Reagan, Trump might be a circus clown -- but that’s clown in the Stephen King sense as opposed Barnum and Bailey. Every day seems to bring another study or op-ed about how constant attention paid to social media causes stress, depression, and aggression. It also causes consumers to behave in the exact opposite was to Postman’s dulled, happily amused news consumers. Increasingly we’re a nation of outraged, enraged, trolls - quick to respond to even the most thinly-sourced tweet with anger and abuse of our own.
In other words, far from being passive, overwhelmed but ultimately fat-n-happy news junkies, we’ve been weaponized into the digital equivalent of Orwell’s five minutes of hate. And like in Orwell’s book, we can barely keep track of who we’re supposed to be angry at or why.