Are We Still Amusing Ourselves To Death?
It is a fair question to ask why a book predating iPhones and Netflix would be consider worthy of further reflection in 2017. In 1985, media theorist and professor at New York University, Neil Postman penned what would become a seminal work on the intersection of techno-amusements and the culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Others such as such Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, and John Palfrey have more recently followed his lead.
Postman could not have foreseen in 1985 how the world of ideas and the exchange of information would be transformed as we have it now. He then noted, “We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word” (28). One might immediately object and note that television viewing is actually on the decline. However, one could exchange his use of the word “television” and insert any social or digitized media and see that he was on to something. American adults today spend an average of 74 hours a week in front of screens in all shapes and sizes. In a latter work, Postman would call this the technopoly—the surrendering of the culture to technology—and the last thirty-five years shows the surrender has not waned in the least.
What does our fascination (addiction?) with these glowing screens reveal about our ability to communicate? Postman believed “the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation” (8). I think Postman’s basic premise is essentially correct, and, therefore, a reflective reading or re-reading of his work is still needed today.
Professor Postman believed that the close of the nineteenth century brought an end to the Age of Exposition and the start of the Age of Show Business (63). When entertainment is no longer entertaining, all that is left is a base form of communication. This baseness is on display when humans merely grunt at each other in caveman-like murmurings left in comment sections of blogs. Currently, offering brief “tweets” or “likes” on Facebook are ironically considered “social” interactions. It is nothing short of a major coup for those in the business; we have uncritically accepted the idea we are being “social” when merely “liking” someone’s picture or post. If anything, it is all anti-social.
Those who dismiss Postman as a neo-Luddite would do well to give him a second reading. He is clearly not anti-technology, but he believes we have been ill-served by entertainment masquerading as serious discourse. News, politics, science, education, and religion have all been packaged into forms of entertainment that help them to “sell.”
Readers of this blog will be most interested in chapter eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” At the time of his writing, religious figures like Swaggart, Falwell, Bakker and Schuller were at their precarious peak. The age of televangelism was in full-swing. These individuals successfully influenced many, not because of publishing or their preaching but because of broadcasting. Postman’s critique of these televangelists should not be lost on those who think we have outgrown such religious packaging. He writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (121). Is it possible that the cranks of televangelism have merely been exchanged for a newer breed of hipster Christianity or one that is easily packaged in relevant wrappings?
Closer to home, I feel the unpleasant sting of this technopoly every time a phone sounds-out unannounced in a worship service. I see believers glued to their phones while needy souls shuffle by. I know families who rarely look up from their amusements to notice one another and engage in fruitful discussion. Church leaders need to engage congregants on these issues. While there are practical measures to be taken (“turn off your phones in church”), further in are the heart issues these amusements reveal.
Amusing Ourselves To Death should be required reading for all in ministry. The challenges of ministry constantly beckon us to adopt mediums which present the Gospel in forms that render it “simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment” (141). Postman demonstrates that in Orwell’s vision, the culture becomes a prison; in Huxley’s vision, the culture becomes a burlesque. The task of the minister is to speak to both without becoming either.
Paul Lamey is one of our seven TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.