Amused but not dead, yet.

Neil Postman is famous in certain circles for his bites at modern culture, and in particular the media. Possibly his most famous book is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I recently finished this book after it was recommended to me by a friend, but before this I was kept reminded of a certain need to read it:  


Orwell -v- Huxley as explained by Neil Postman


Postman, who died in 2003, published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985 the same year the Ronald Regan, a former actor becomes the president of the United States (remember Doc Brown in Back to the Future “Then tell me, “Future Boy”, who’s President in the United States in 1985? … Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s VICE-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!”), and celebrity power pulled together in its greatest show of force to raise funds for starving famine victims in Ethiopia in the famous event, LiveAid. Yes, these were the eighties and a time I remember mostly picking my nose and running around in fields for most of the summer, that is of course after I learned how to walk.

 When Postman published his book I am not sure what his overall goal was, besides as a medium to inform, he didn’t propose that we should turn off our televisions or that we should storm the big networks and demand a change. I think he had already seen the end and felt that this book could perhaps save a few last souls.


Another thing about the book is that it is specifically directed towards the United States. I did my best to try to keep the notion in my head that Ireland couldn’t have gone this far yet, sure we still have Questions and Answers and England, where the majority of televisions comes from in Ireland, still has the BBC to enlighten us (but if you read some newspaper coverage of the worldcup punditry you’d begin to wonder). I held my head high thinking, we’re ok, we escaped the rot, the infection of American television; our souls were saved.


Well, that unfortunately isn’t the case. Because the amount of homes in Ireland without Sky Digital or NTL or whomever else is selling the world in a box is undoubtedly in the minority. In Korea the case is the same. In every home internet connected TV prevails with more channels than homes in an apartment block. There are so many TV channels with famous faces screaming ecstatically with flashing lights between other channels selling everything from fridges to dehydrators to freshly caught crab. This is not forgetting that in practically every business I’ve gone into these days, including government offices, there is a widescreen HD television advertising or entertaining whoever has had the privilege of taking their business to that particular establishment. In Ireland the same TV magazines and celebrity gossip brighten up the shelves next to the men’s magazines selling the same things except in the hands of some bird with big tits and blonde hair, and all for less than the price of the cheapest can of beer. I could go on.


Am I bitter? Of course not. I’m just painting a pretty grim picture to show that we may try to distance ourselves from the media monster across either the Atlantic of Pacific Oceans, but this is pointless as we, and I mean both Irish and Koreans, grow more and more obsessed and distracted by the lures of television and the media as the days go by.


Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The national broadcasters in both Ireland and Korea do their best to remain informative with a diverse range of broadcasting on offer, but twenty-first century cable and on-demand television options have ruined these efforts. Channels that stream four hours of one particular comedy, or on-demand television that allows you to watch and entire series back-to-back and forget where the hours have gone on a Tuesday afternoon, these lead us into a deeper black hole of irrelevance than Postman could ever have imagined.


But that’s not even the start of what I want to talk about in this post.


Some months ago, much to stifle the complaints of my better judgement, also known as my wife, I deleted my Facebook account. I can’t point the finger actually at her, it was a decision I consciously made myself and have been happy with ever since. She did offer plenty of support for which I’m grateful, and I’ll be honest, I take a peek every so often via her Facebook profile that she hardly ever uses, but mostly at a few family and friend’s photos. She, fortunately, hasn’t subscribed to the mountains of nonsense that I had familiarised myself with over the period of my three years of cohabiting.


Facebook was created too late for Postman to have created an opinion about it and its effects on society and the world. In fact Facebook followed other programmes such as Myspace and MSN Messenger, both revolutionary for their time, and added all their extras and removed all their nonsense, such as choosing what colour your page was, and caused its members to focus purely on the business at hand; knowing everything and anything about your ‘friends’.


This new step in the world of technology has turned everyone who has ever wanted to be a celebrity to have their opportunity to portray themselves in the greatest possible light. Social networking before Facebook was too distant, too complicated, and not very attractive. Facebook has allowed an easy way to organise and a uniform way of spreading yourself all over the world. Its popularity has even allowed itself to operate as a universal means of accessing and using the internet through a new universal ‘sign-in via Facebook’ option that has been appearing on many sites recently.


I recently read a post, and I agree completely with the poster, that how is that people now expect every form of communication to operate through Facebook? If an event is organised, it is publicised on Facebook (I haven’t heard of a music event in months), if there’s a party or a cause, the easy way is to just go with Facebook. If you’re not on it then it seems that people are happy to just ignore you and move on. Facebook has transformed into more than just a social network, it is a society of individuals that have forgotten what happens on Facebook probably isn’t that important, while in fact there are, no doubt, more important things going on outside that Facebook hasn’t had the foresight to realise.


I should emphasize that I’m writing this from my own experience and from what I’ve ascertained from talking to other people about Facebook who do the same things I did for so long. The addiction of seeing some more news about how a person’s cat managed to pee in their breakfast cereal, or that such and such likes a particular kind of food or music or whatever and then preceding excitement as you realise that you too also like this and that you can like it too, and then, you’ll, like, like it, right?


Social networking has taken over from television as it is has removed the experience of knowing about those who should be close to you and has placed ownership on the website, distracting people further from a reality that is really realistic. It bothered me when people who clearly didn’t know it was my birthday wished me happy birthday only because the website told them. This kind of knowledge couldn’t help me but think about what was really important in life, knowing that it was my birthday or not knowing because I wasn’t looking at this website but outside or away from it doing something else.


The result?

I could always get a sense of relief when I would spend two or three days away from it, but then come back to find that nothing had actually happened. I mean by this that there was nothing important or entertaining or useful to be learned. As a compliment to this, I spoke with some good friends of mine recently who I hadn’t seen in a while but had previously kept up a Facebook relationship. Previously when we met there was nothing to talk about and it felt like nothing had happened, with the exception of the odd occasion where one of us would begin a sentence with the always ubiquitous “I saw this thing on Facebook…”. This time, I actually had news to share, and so did she. It was strange to actually share a conversation with a person and catch up, as opposed to be constantly referring to Facebook.


This might seem like I’ve been preaching as to why Facebook is evil. Facebook isn’t evil, as I said before, Facebook is what it is. It is the people who use it that have the problems, like me. Facebook is a wonderful utility and much like Postman commented about Television, it is amazing as a tool for its inanity and pointlessness. The problem is, and Facebook shares and exaggerates this problem, is that it confuses what is important with what is pointless and in this confusion we lose sight of how to deal with those things that we should strive to interact with only on a personal and human level.


These things are people, and more importantly they are our friends and family whom we have known for longer than Facebook’s existence. To keep our shared existence we need to share our existence, not just expect them to follow our existence like the form of a racing horse; as the paper shows the horse has run but it never shows the aches on the day after, the tears on the training track, and the slap on the face it gets when it misses its footing only trying to get from one place to the next.


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