I was recently organizing my library and came across a remarkable work from the past that offered an insightful and surprisingly accurate glimpse of the future.
Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” was originally published in 1985, yet—to my astonishment—rings glaringly true today.
According to Amazon.com, “... Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.”
As I casually began to peruse the book memories came flooding back to me of just why I was so sobered by Postman’s insights in 1985. I found myself sitting down in my study and virtually re-reading the entirety of this deceptively small volume. The more I read, the more dumbfounded I was by Postman’s prophetic insights into what was then America’s future and is now too often a painful description of America’s present and may very well portend an even more depressing future.
Postman started off the book by contrasting the two most dystopian visions of modern civilization’s future—George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932).
Postman points out that contrary to popular and even “educated” opinion, Orwell and Huxley “did not prophesy the same thing.” Orwell’s dark vision of the future featured a totalitarian state (‘Big Brother’) that suffocated people and extended to managing and controlling every area of each person’s life through enormous advances in technological surveillance. While Orwell envisioned a significantly technologically advanced Soviet-style police state on steroids, Postman observed that Huxley envisioned a future where people came to “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Sound anything like 2016? Amusing ourselves to death, preoccupied with electronic entertainment and electronic communication?
Wrote Postman: “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. ...”
Postman concluded that “Amusing Ourselves to Death” “is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Several people have asked me recently, “How do you explain America’s fascination, or fixation, with celebrities, whether Prince or Donald Trump?” Clearly, the recently deceased Prince was a marvelously talented entertainer, and Donald Trump is a remarkably gifted marketer who has mastered the language and communication skills of social media and converted them into a successful hostile takeover of the Republican Party. That explains the how, but not the why? Postman provides us with an answer.
The internet has changed the basic DNA of our culture, including our social and personal relationships and our information access. It has radically democratized communication, while at the same time condemning any effective editorial or verifying filter as the unwelcome control of a hated elite. Consequently, we are being engulfed not only in a sea of moral relativism, but information relativism as well. The immersion of our culture in “internet-speak” has brought us perilously close to a denial, if not a revocation, of the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s statement that “you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Now, opinions too often masquerade as facts, and fewer and fewer know the difference and increasingly fewer care.
Postman also wrote: “When a population becomes distracted by media, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversations become a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then the nation finds itself at risk. Culture death is a clear possibility. ... For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug.”
Postman continued with these words, “This is an experiment that began slowly in the mid-nineteenth century and, now in the latter half of the twentieth, we see perverse maturity in America’s consuming love affair with television. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow moving printed word, and having granted the television sovereignty over all their institutions by ushering in the age of television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.”
If that was true of the television age, just think how it has exponentially increased with internet, smartphones and social media. How do we respond? We respond by rationing our exposure to mindless entertainment, by encouraging our children to read, by having serious discussions, and by not letting the internet and the smartphone and the other technologies rule us. We should rule them, and we should limit our exposure to them.
Dr. Richard Land is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and former president (1988-2013) of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families. He has taught as a visiting or adjunct professor for several seminaries and has authored or edited more than 15 books.