This Mindless AgeRomans 12:1-2Theme: Christ’s call to think.This week’s lessons teach us our responsibility to be thinking Christians. LessonTelevision is certainly capable of imprinting “the pattern of this world” on us. An academic study of the negative impact of television on culture has been provided by Neil Postman, a professor of communication arts and sciences at New York University. It is called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.1
Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, one year after 1984, the year popularized as the title of George Orwell’s futuristic novel with its dark vision of a society controlled by fear. In Orwell’s novel Big Brother rules everything with a ruthless iron fist. But Postman reminds us that there was another novel written slightly earlier with an equally chilling but quite different vision of the future: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In Huxley’s novel there is no need for Big Brother, because in this ominous vision of the future, people have come to love their oppression as well as the technologies that strip away their capacities to think.
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… 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 diversions.”2
Obviously, as Postman suggests, the Western cultures have succumbed to the second of these two oppressions, just as the Communist countries fell victim to the first.
So what does Postman say? The first half of Postman’s book is a study of the difference between what he calls “the age of typography” and our present television age which he calls “the age of show business.” Typography refers to words in print, and it concerns the communication of ideas by newspapers, pamphlets, and books. It is rational and analytic, because that is the way written words work.
To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making, and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and over-generalizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.3
Postman illustrates the strength of the age of typography by public attention to the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of the mid-eighteen hundreds, which people were capable of hearing, understanding, and forming opinions about, even though they lasted three to seven hours. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of.”4 The country could think.
Unfortunately, television does not operate by rational means of communication but by images, and as a result we are becoming a mindless culture.
1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1986). Original edition 1985.2 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp. vii, viii.3 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 51.4 Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 41.
What weakness have Western cultures given in to?
What does it mean “to engage the written word”?
Why is the written word good for the mind?
How does reading involve the mind more than watching TV does?