After reading Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (admittedly, a few years late), I gave up on and no longer watch television news. In fact, I watch nothing that purports to be of real substance on television. Postman said that "television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous, when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations." He goes on to say that "no matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overriding presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure." Thus, to the extent I watch television, I decided that I would watch it purely to be entertained. Give me Stargate, not the CBS Evening news; Seinfeld, not 60 minutes. But even these shows often purport to say something of importance! What's a couch potato to do?
Postman's argument is that "a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense." He laments the passing of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. In the Age of Typography, most everyone read. Reading encourages rationality, analytical thinking, reflection, and following an argument. He gives the example of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates of the 19th century -- debates that were well attended and went on for six hours! Six hours? People can't even seem to sleep for six hours anymore much less listen to a debate for six hours.
In his next book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman takes the argument one step further by arguing that Americans love technology so much that they are unable to refuse it. In other words, technology is sovereign. As Christians, we would say that it is idolatry to worship anything other than God, and yet, in our society, technology is worshiped.
Postman's words have proven prophetic. Television and, for that matter, any new technology, is supreme. Now, what do we do about it? What ought we do about it? Do we surrender?
For one, we can encourage thoughtfulness, as in reading deeply on a subject and discussing it with others. Rather than being beholden to new technology, schools should encourage reading of great books. Some already do. Students surfing the web or weblogs can amass a lot of details, but the medium does not lend itself to thoughtfulness, or the sustained argument, or patience. For example, the little bit I'm offering here is but a teaser, if that; you need to read Postman -- all of him, and then discuss his arguments with others who have read him. Is he right? How so? Does his argument stand up? Rather than skimming blogs, I hope folks will actually be prompted to read.
Second, we can encourage the reading of great fiction. The best fiction is the compelling sort of read about which, when someone asks me what's the point of the book, I have to say I'm not sure. Why? Because it is so true, so like life, that it requires thoughtfulness to sort out its profound and deeply embedded themes. It's a story, with real characters -- not a polemic, not a prop for a point someone wishes to make. Turn off the TV for three weeks and devote the time to great books, and when you return to the TV you'll see it for the shallow medium it is. It's like junk food -- you crave it, but it cannot sustain you, and it's effects are damaging.
Even Postman had little hope that the tide could be reversed. I don't either. We do not have an overarching moral framework as a society that will pass judgment on technology. Perhaps its the Dark Ages again. Perhaps like the monks who kept the written word alive, like the little community of outcasts in Fahrenheit 451, we will have to keep the books alive -- not because they are banned, but because they are unloved and neglected.
Darn it, Postman, TV's just no fun anymore.
And now, this. . .