Has TV Rotted Our Minds? On Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast/Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Crossover)

Mar­shall McLuhan famous­ly said “The medi­um is the mes­sage,” by which he meant that when we receive infor­ma­tion, its effect on us is deter­mined as much by the form of that infor­ma­tion as by the actu­al con­tent.

Neil Post­man, in his 1985 book Amus­ing Our­selves to Death: Pub­lic Dis­course in the Age of Show Busi­ness, ran with this idea, argu­ing that TV has con­di­tioned us to expect that every­thing must be enter­tain­ing, and that this has had a dis­as­trous effect on news, pol­i­tics, edu­ca­tion, and think­ing in gen­er­al.

In this dis­cus­sion, your Pret­ty Much Pop hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er and Bri­an Hirt join with the rest of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life crew: Seth Paskin, Dylan Casey and Wes Alwan.

The result is much more philo­soph­i­cal con­text than you’d get in a typ­i­cal Pret­ty Much Pop dis­cus­sion. Pla­to, for exam­ple, argued (through the char­ac­ter of Socrates) in the Phae­drus against writ­ing, which he said amounts to off-load­ing thought to this inert thing, when it should be live­ly in our minds and our direct con­ver­sa­tions. Post­man’s book describes the Age of Print as high­ly con­ge­nial toward lengthy, abstract rea­son­ing. High lit­er­a­cy rates, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Amer­i­ca, con­di­tioned peo­ple to expect that this is how infor­ma­tion is to be received, and as such they were, for instance, pre­pared to lis­ten rapt­ly to the Lin­coln-Dou­glas debates in which the speak­ers pro­vid­ed lawyer­ly speech­es that might span mul­ti­ple hours.

Post­man, an edu­ca­tion­al the­o­rist, described tele­vi­sion as not just pro­vid­ing a no-con­text expe­ri­ence whose high lev­el of visu­al and audi­to­ry stim­u­la­tion beats its spec­ta­tors into thought­less pas­siv­i­ty, but that its pop­u­lar­i­ty pos­i­tive­ly infects all the oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels avail­able. Of course there is still in-per­son teach­ing, but tele­vi­sion short­ens atten­tion spans such that teach­ers now feel the need to con­stant­ly enter­tain instead of forc­ing stu­dents to make the effort required to attend care­ful­ly to what they have to teach. Of course there are still books, but they are less read, and the com­pe­ti­tion of tele­vi­sion for our time has changed the pre­sen­ta­tion with­in books so that they must be as imme­di­ate­ly and con­sis­tent­ly appeal­ing as tele­vi­sion.

McLuhan described tele­vi­sion as a “hot” medi­um due to its high lev­el of stim­u­la­tion, where a “cool” one like a text­book requires more active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the recip­i­ent. We dis­cuss how Post­man’s cri­tique fares in the Age of the Inter­net, which inter­est­ing­ly mix­es things up, with more inter­ac­tiv­i­ty (in that sense cool­er) yet even more pos­si­bil­i­ty for sen­so­ry dis­trac­tion (in that per­haps more impor­tant sense hot­ter). To sup­ple­ment Post­man, we also con­sult­ed a wide­ly read arti­cle from The Atlantic writ­ten by Nicholas Carr in 2008 called “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid.”

For more philo­soph­i­cal touch­points, see the post for this dis­cus­sion at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Hear more Pret­ty Much Pop at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes an equal­ly long sec­ond part that you can access by sup­port­ing Pret­ty Much Pop at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by sup­port­ing The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life at partiallyexaminedlife.com/support. Lis­ten to a pre­view of part two.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts.

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