Tyranny by Entertainment

For most of my adult life I have heard references made to the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It is in large part due to this book that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman makes the argument in his book that we have more to fear from and are closer to Huxley’s dystopia than that of Orwell (1984). The difference is that in Orwell’s dystopia, the tyranny comes from a dictatorial state while in Huxley’s it comes from a complacent public only concerned with being entertained continually. Sound familiar?

Well, I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s book. Despite the fact that it was published in 1985, it is as relevant today as ever. The book focuses on TV, but simply change that word to social media or the internet and the same arguments could be made today. Postman doesn’t trash TV, though. He says that we definitely need entertainment. TV is best when it is trash TV. After all, that’s what it is for. The problem comes when it tries to get involved with more serious matters like politics and education. Rather than simply bringing these important aspects of society to a broader audience, it instead turns them into simple, and often mindless, entertainment.

The core of his argument is that due to TV, we are moving from a culture of reason and typography to one of entertainment and show business. It is an argument that is hard to refute. It seems even more true today than nearly forty years ago. My biggest disappointment with the book is that it doesn’t offer more in the way of ideas to overcome it. The one main suggestion he gives is a high hurdle – reforming education. I think the trouble is that there aren’t a whole lot of answers to this dilemma and none of them are simple. But becoming aware of the problem is a crucial first step.

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