Q&A: NEIL POSTMAN

The perils of television

December 16 1985
Q&A: NEIL POSTMAN

The perils of television

December 16 1985

The perils of television

Q&A: NEIL POSTMAN

Neil Postman is one of North America's leading social critics and media theorists. A professor of media ecology in the department of communications at New York University, Postman became a celebrity in 1969 when he published his best-selling book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, a provocative critique of education in the age of television. Subsequent books, including Teaching as a Conserving Activity and The Disappearance of Childhood, discussed the pervasive influence of the electronic media, especially TV, on American society. In his latest book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published last month by Viking Penguin Books, Postman continued his analysis of the effects of television. Maclean’s correspondent Morton Ritts interviewed him in New York.

Maclean’s: What is television's impact on North American culture?

Postman: We use television to do everything for us, so it is right at the centre of our culture. Everything resonates from that. It’s not really like movies or rec-

ords or the theatre. People go to the movies to see a show, not to get the news or the weather or the sports scores. I don’t think that Canadians are quite as in love with television as Americans. Americans have made television the command centre of their whole culture. Maclean’s: How has television changed the way we communicate?

Postman: Television, because of its form and special nature, changes all serious public discourse into forms of entertainment, so that politics, public information, commerce, religion and news are packaged like Las Vegas shows. Let’s take specific examples: politics and religion. Most political campaigns in America are conducted via the television commercial. It does not bother with providing people with complex issues or answers. A good political commercial simply tries to evoke an emotional response. Preachers on television present themselves as more or less charismatic characters. The religion they preach has no ritual, no theology, no canon or dogma. There is nothing you really have to know or remember. Basically, what you have is the charisma of the preacher. Maclean’s: What is television doing to alter the news?

Postman: The news, like everything else on television, is packaged like a show and therefore the first principle is not to have anything on the news that is not instantly interesting. Television does open a window to the world, but it is a very peculiar world. It is a world in which there are no connections between one thing and another. Each story has nothing to do with any other. Everything is very fragmented and discontinuous. As a result, Americans know of many things but they know about very little.

Maclean’s: One of your conclusions is that television has created a need for us to be constantly entertained.

Postman: With television, the line between serious discourse and entertainment has been slowly eroded. For example, people such as Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and Geraldine Ferraro, who could all be said to be political figures, appear on entertainment shows such as Saturday Night Live or Cheers, or talk shows. So there is really no distinction between them as political figures or show business characters. You find manifestations of this in education, where increasingly teachers say they must entertain their students.

Maclean’s: Why do you believe that Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel, Brave New World, was a more accurate prophecy than George Orwell's popular work, Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Postman: In Orwell’s book people are controlled by inflicting pain, and in Huxley’s they are controlled by inflict-

ing pleasure. So far as the Western democracies are concerned, we don’t have Orwell’s Big Brother checking up on us. Our Big Brother is what Huxley called soma, the drug that keeps everyone distracted and entertained and therefore quite controllable. He foresaw that you did not really need a complex structure of oppression to keep people in line. You could do it by making everything into a kind of large open-air show. Maclean’s: How does television influence childhood?

Postman: To oversimplify: childhood has not always existed. It was, in effect, invented in the 16th century as a result of the creation of schools, and schools were created as a response to the printing press. This is the origin of the concept of childhood. Television undermines the whole idea of childhood because in the world of television you cannot keep secrets. You cannot separate the content of the adult’s world from the the child’s. People of different ages who have access to the same information tend to think more alike, dress more alike and generally behave more alike.

Maclean’s: Does American television have any virtues?

Postman: There are a number of intriguing questions. For example, television made the Vietnam War more and more repulsive to the public. I’m not saying that television necessarily inspired the antiwar movement, but I think that it made it a legitimate point of view. Television also plays an important role in making repulsive some forms of racism. To some extent that’s working now in the South Africa issue. At 6 o’clock or 11 o’clock people see the blacks in South Africa being attacked, having tear gas thrown at them and being beaten on the ground. That type of racism becomes unacceptable on television. Also people who are ill or elderly and don’t have much access to the world very often find television a great blessing.

Maclean’s: What can we do to lessen the negative impact of television?

Postman: I would stake my hopes on education, as weak as that might be. We should take the media—as objects of inquiry—seriously in our schools. Canadian scholars have been telling us to do this for years. Whatever I know about this, I mostly learned from Canadians. I don’t just mean the two obvious communications theorists, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, but critics from other fields such as Eric Havelock, Edmund Carpenter and Northrop Frye. It seems that there’s a tradition in Canada of looking at the media and technology from a distance, and I think if we could achieve something like that in our American education system we would stand a chance of mitigating many of the destructive effects of television.^