Media Triviality: The World According to Neil Postman

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he warned that unless we changed course, our society would be controlled by the technology we thought would free us. Our very desire would be our own undoing.

Postman died in 2003, long before his prophecies came to pass. Since then, we have seen the rise of social media and addictive, trivial new mediums, that seek not to free us from compulsion, but to trap us, at all hours, into a passive form of control.

Last year, I read Postman’s books and essays to try and understand what he had discovered about technology. In doing so, I wanted to understand the world according to Neil Postman.

Postman begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by laying out the key framework of his argument. The world we live in today, he says, is not the one we feared it would be:

We were keeping our eye on 1984.

When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of ourselves. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

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 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.

There is no prize for guessing who was right.

When we look around at the world today, how can we not say that we have become a captive society, controlled in the very manner that Postman and Huxley predicted? What’s more, instead of resisting this control, as we would under a fascist regime – we have succumbed to it.

As Postman wrote:

People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.

There are many reasons for this. But at the core of it is an idea explained by the philosopher Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. Technology is not simply a tool by which we communicate. Inside each new technology is a message inherent to that technology itself. Different mediums favour different messages, and in doing so, censor other messages.

Postman applied this logic to colour television. Television, he argued, was not a medium that was built for longform discussions. Talking head programs, or public debates, which used to be popular in person or on the radio, did not get good ratings on television. Television demanded visual content, graphics, sound, quick cuts and images of different scenes and different people. An engaging television program was an engaging set of images. An engaging radio program, on other hand, could be one person talking.

The news media, which began in longform, quickly transitioned into headlines with flashy images and sounds. The presenters began to be chosen less for their intellect and more for their appearance. A good smile was sufficient. What’s more, the audience were more engaged with attractive and younger hosts, rather than those who necessarily knew what they were talking about.

Core to the television experience was the headline. A sentence per topic, capturing the totality of the subject matter, separated by the cute phrase, Now this. Neil Postman wrote that television news headlines were psychotic in nature. A presenter would present a genocide next to a story about fluffy animals, next to a crime, or a weather report – while the presenter would smile the whole way through.

The news is a place that is devoid of emotion, and often overloaded with fluff – with banter, smiles and laughs – despite what is being read in the bulletin. Everything is shown to be fun, in this light, even the most horrifying problems of humanity.

We can apply this logic equally to the social media of today. A social media feed might have a wedding, followed by a genocide, followed by a party, followed by a famine in Africa, one post after the other.

How are we meant to respond to this? Is it human, or even possible, to respond in the correct way? One might imagine we should be happy about the wedding, terrified about the genocide, joyous about the party and then sad about the famine, but can we manage that? To achieve that much emotional connection with the content in such quick succession would require a kind of psychosis only seen in the fringes of society.

Instead, we tend to ignore most of what we see. Information overload breeds a psychological detachment from the situation. The world might be burning in hundreds of different ways – but we are only capable of caring about one of those ways at a time. We watch the news, but we absorb nothing. We see the headlines, but we feel nothing. We are bombarded and overwhelmed with sensory experience, and yet our senses are numb.

The question underlying all of this is: who benefits?

Who benefits from us being numb, addicted to technology, passive to the world’s problems and innately selfish and individualistic? The obvious answer is the technology companies. Postman writes that:

those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology.

The priests of the middle ages, with access to the technology of the book and reading, could control the lives of the masses. The news anchors of the 1980s, with access to broadcasting, could control the opinion of the masses. The tech companies, with access to the addictive apps and platforms we use at all hours of the day, can control our lives.

And it is in this sad realization that we find ourselves – lost and adrift in the mass of addiction and compulsion, lost in a sea of technological control. As individuals, there seems so little we can do against this. But we can, at least, be aware that the mediums we use each have a message, that technology is not just a tool, and that certain people are benefiting from the passive numbness we are being induced into feeling.

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