Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.

Thing Explainer: A Review

One of the cool things about studying science and engineering is finding out how things work. One of the neatest things about being a parent is teaching my kids about the wonders of the world--both natural and technological--around us. However, having done the first does not necessarily equip me to do the second. Randall Munroe’s recent book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words provides a partial solution.

In some circles Munroe is much better known for his internet comic xkcd, which boasts a lot of geek jokes. He’s also a former NASA roboticist, so he brings that background to the table, combining technical acumen with strong illustration skills to present a unique offering to the curious of the world.

The basic premise of Thing Explainer that many technologies are a mystery because of the terminology used to explain them and not because the technology is overwhelmingly complex. Munroe carefully diagrams 44 different things and explains them using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.

Among the objects explained are a nuclear reactor, elevators, weather maps, a tree, the U.S. Constitution, the USS Constitution, a human cell, a submarine and more. The list is long and varied and extends to many different types of interest.

I do not have the technical acumen to evaluate all of the descriptions and explanations that Munroe provides. However, having been a submariner, I can say that his diagram and explanation of a nuclear submarine is sufficiently accurate and informative. Also, having been an instructor at a commercial nuclear power plant, I will attest to the quality of his description of that technology. There are a few places where I could quibble, but generalizations are necessary and sometimes the differences between the modes of operation explain the apparent inaccuracies. Overall, I think that this book is remarkably accurate and informative.

Thing Explainer is entertaining. The diagrams are engaging. The level of detail is high so that as we flip through the volume it continues to delight with new discoveries. This is not a book that will be once read and quickly discarded. There are detailed explanations of the various labeled parts of all the diagrams, which give opportunity for reading and rereading. The adults in my house have both enjoyed reading this book.

The entertainment value extends to our children. My son (6) thoroughly enjoys looking at the pictures and as an emerging reader is able to figure out most of the words. The girls haven’t been as interested, but it’s there when they want it. This is a really great volume to have on the shelf for kids to pull out when they are bored or curious. I’m hoping that it inspires a growing interest in engineering for all of our children.

Munroe’s explanations are good, in that they reasonably accurately depict the function and operation of the various objects he is describing. This is helpful in breaking through the technical jargon into real understanding. The weakness of this approach, however, is that even if the reader understands the technology she will not be able to communicate with experts in the field. Since Munroe doesn’t give the actual names of the components, but uses roundabout ways to describe them (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile = Machines for Burning Cities), this means that someone can understand how something works and still sound silly when trying to explain it to someone else. Given the option, I’ll still use this as an introduction and a means to increase curiosity in my kids, but the approach brings its own limitations.

NOTE: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

On Being Discipled in an Internet Age

It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of technology and the Christian man: distraction, access to pornography, isolation, etc. Discussing the dangers of technology is important, but we should not forget to celebrate the positive contributions of technology.

One example of a hugely positive contribution that technology has brought to men in the 21st century is the ability to find amazing quantities of high quality discipleship material. Among the dangerous websites, sources of distraction and bad doctrines, there are brilliant examples of phenomenal Christian content available and ready. It really eliminates any excuse that a modern man has of not being discipled.

Certainly sermons, podcasts, blogs, and e-books will never replace person-on-person accountability. However, never before have so many excellent resources been made available, often at no cost.

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