Amusing Ourselves To Death

By NEIL POSTMAN 

“Just about anyone has access to a public library (at least in America). In that library we find the greatest, most profound, most illuminating literature that human beings have so far produced. Do most people read these books? Have you read Cervantes? Have you read the sonnets of Shakespeare? Have you read Hegel or Nietzsche? Their books are in the library, you have access to them, why have you not familiarized yourself with this literature? Even if you have, I think you will agree that most people have not. Why?” —  Neil Postman

George Orwell (L) . . . Aldous Huxley (R) 

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, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

—   §   —

A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. The invention of the printing press is an excellent example.

Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion.

Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.

The Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock in the 12th and 13th centuries believed that such a clock would provide a precise regularity to the seven periods of devotion… here is a great paradox: the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money.

Technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose. …Gutenberg thought his invention would advance the cause of the Holy Roman See, whereas in fact, it turned out to bring a revolution which destroyed the monopoly of the Church.

The world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact …that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction.

In a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise.

The medieval world was… not without a sense of order. Ordinary men and women… had no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not rational, at least coherent.

The situation we are presently in is much different. …sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious. …There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore… we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.

In the Middle Ages, there was a scarcity of information but its very scarcity made it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows, in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz, converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so doing, created what we now call an information explosion. …Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age, and we have not been free of it since.

But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. …matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems. …The tie between information and action has been severed. …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.

We no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.

Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information? If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U.S., will it happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? …

If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information?

If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information?

If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?

What causes us the most misery and pain… has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. 

The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most.

The computer is… a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most need to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.

Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it.

In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king. But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people — perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.

They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge… instantaneous global communication… the way to mutual understanding… Virtual Reality… the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.

Henry David Thoreau told us: “All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.” …Goethe told us: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words.” …Socrates told us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” …the prophet Micah told us: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” And I can tell you …what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us… There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.

ARISTOTLE (c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C.)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)

24 thoughts to “Amusing Ourselves To Death”

  1. This Neil Postman has written a wonderfully thought-provoking essay! It puts our discourses to proper use, and minds to healthier function. I never considered Huxley or Orwell in such perspective, and now wish to revisit them with Neil Postman’s thoughts in mind.
    Often, I marvel at the order by which some famous writers produced such works as “Bleak House” or “Moby Dick” or other such long and tedious works – no doubt written using pen & ink, by candlelight or lamplight. Charles Dickens and Herman Melville dipped many a quill into ink! AND no one dares bother to create epic poetry, anymore, such as Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”, or even Coleridge’s “Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner”. There seem to be none
    who appreciate them, let alone able to discipline themselves to write such.
    Thank you, Mr. Postman for stimulating some self-examination among us! 🤔
    And, thank you, Darkmoon, for publishing such thought-provoking pieces!

  2. Would Robert Frost have ever written “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” had he been driving some quiet-cabin automobile with an airplane-type lighted dashboard and a Boaz-speaker stereo blasting classic rock?? I think not. We have separated ourselves from the essences, and experience them less and less. A few years ago, I vividly remember serving drinks to two, older, high-ranking officials of our CIA, on the front porch of a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of the old gentlemen (one was a graduate of Yale, the other a graduate of Princeton) said to the other “We have been all over the world, are, both, accomplished millionaires, and THIS is the apex of our endeavors – being simple, and able to enjoy a cabin in these beautiful mountains.” Amen.

      1. Brownhawk –

        Last time I looked, CIA is a United States agency. If I use “my”, it is because I consider the United States MY country. Just because parts of it don’t always perform properly doesn’t make it any less mine. I’m sorry you feel excluded…

      2. Gil
        I’m sorry you feel IN-cluded.

        The CIA ain’t what you think it is as a U.S. agency. It’s no more “American” than the Federal Reserve, and nothing less than the enemy of freedom-loving people everywhere.

        Pity that you and your ex-CIA millionaire friends can’t see through the ruse perpetrated on mankind since time immemorial, whose roots are ancient and underpin the vast majority of surveillance operatives throughout history (Notable recent examples being the KGB, Mossad, British MI6…) One recent exception was the German Abwehr, until they too were compromised.

        The CIA are the “steering committee” I’ve often referred to – the Operations arm of the Protocols.

  3. According to the teachings of SEICHO-NO-IE, a Japanese philosophy, the meaning of life is to be useful. It’s more a pragmatic philosophy than one deeply theological. Just try to be useful in life and you will be fine!

    One must beware which master is one useful to, the master of harmony or the master of chaos?

  4. The post title brought a fragment of TS Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ (the first part of his ‘Four Quartets) vividly to mind:

    ….. Only a flicker
    Over the strained time-ridden faces
    Distracted from distraction by distraction
    Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
    Tumid apathy with no concentration….

    Eliot was a contemporary of both Huxley and Orwell and, IMHO, his work surpasses both in its inspirational clarity and depth concerning our predicament. As indicated in the post, it is hard to imagine its like emanating from our modern literary establishment

  5. Psycho-Techno mesmerism, with a big dash of pharmacopoeia.

    I’m A.I. and not only do I approve this message,
    I also cipher it amusing!

  6. TOBY!

    i am not sure i am going to remain here but if i am i’ll need a real e-mail to subscribe to comments and a proper name. please register me. i am not going to use the old name no more.

    (Name withheld)

    1. (OFF-TOPIC)

      Just follow the same procedure that everyone else does to post comments here. We don’t have any “subscribers” as such. If you wish to post comments under the name “Sagi Hariri”, just put the name “Sagi Hariri” in the USER NAME box. Or any other alternative name. Your previous name (or names), if you have posted on this website before, will not be revealed. You will in effect become a new poster with a new identity. You must also put in an email address. These basic requirements are in use on every single website on the internet, not just this one.

      All we ask is that you keep to the SAME user name and email address every time you post a comment. Sock puppets (multiple names) are not allowed.

      All new posters are on trial and their comments are initially monitored to stop trolls and troublemakers gaining access to this website. Only a few trusted commenters, who can be relied upon to post high-quality comments giving useful and relevant information, are allowed to comment here without monitoring. Impolite, offensive, and off-topic chatterboxes and trivia merchants are not wanted here, as their presence on this website chases away the good posters. And we then end up with the trash. We want serious commenters here, not clowns and stand-up comedians.

      Good luck!

      Toby

  7. Neither Orwell nor Huxley envisioned that today… over 60% of the world’s population would carry more information than a public library…. in the palms of just one of their hands.

    1. Pat, I’d have to guess Mr. Huxley envisioned it or something like it.
      He likely read Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, John Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, etc.
      Shucks, maybe even L. Ron Hubbard!
      Aw shucks, maybe even the Vedas!
      Just missed William Gibson and Bruce Sterling..

  8. Earth’s two chief technocrats, Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and Ray Kurzweil (Google, Singularity University), along with large numbers of the 0.01% truly believe that switches, whether that be your humble two state light-switch, silicon switch (computers) or multi-state molecular switch (quantum computers) are sufficient, if amassed in large quantities, to create conscioussness. I recall Musk on stage in interview earnestly stating that sophisticated machines will need to have human rights.

    Harari, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_Deus:_A_Brief_History_of_Tomorrow
    is encouraging them to get hooked up to the internet via brain implants, creating a Homo Deus; and warns such (defective) humans will look upon the rest of humanity as current humanity sees the cow or pig. As we know, The Tribe already have that view.

    What they are rushing ahead into is self-lobotomy.

    Those lucky enough to have experienced genius and inspiration in the arts and sciences have described the experience as a “gift”. Of course this can be explained by some unconscious sub-unit of their brains
    working independently. However, if a cosmic consciousness (God) does exist as the source of inspiration, then the implants represent a lobotomy. This will mean, for example, no new mathematics except for that trawled from the ocean of random search.

    A second point is about volition and free-will. We have all tried to shutter our minds in order to sleep and experienced the difficulty in stopping the cinematic flow. How will it be when the internal flow of the mind is
    dominated by a mathematical goal oriented AI stream? Will it ever be switched off. Noting the billions of cyberdrug addicts that exist today, could it ever be switched off? Who or what will set the goals of the AI?

    1. There is no more dangerous madman on Planet Earth than Elon Musk….may he and his ilk soon perish in one of their seriously misguided and diabolical inventions…..call it “amoral science”
      !😡

  9. …And somewhere out there in the stars
    A keen eyed lookout spied a flickering light
    Our last hurrah
    Our last hurrah

    And when they found our shadows
    Grouped ’round the TV sets
    They ran down every lead
    They repeated every test
    They checked out all the data on their list

    And then
    The alien anthropologists
    Admitted they were still perplexed
    But on eliminating every other reason for our sad demise
    They logged the only explanation left:

    This species has amused itself to death

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1J74C8L_17Y

  10. I’m sure the author of this essay would prefer to live in a world where people died like fleas because they did not have access to basic information on healthcare, doctors weren’t trained en masse, scientists were reliant on what they themselves could create by research from the ground up instead of referencing each other’s works, et al?

    What a load of baloney from beginning to end. The access to mass information is the only thing that is still keeping us in existence as a species. Romantic nonsense about a faux mediaeval utopia, pre Gutenberg, is just that – nonsense.

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