Thursday, March 17, 2016

Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Neil Postman Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death Part I, Dec. 1985

This was Intellectual Television. It would come on the tube (that's what we called Television, folks, before the advent of Cable, or later, Cassette or DVD-driven viewing, and way, way before the emergence of ubiquitous, video on demand, better known as YouTube!) on Sunday mornings.

Intellectual Television... as opposed to... Real Television? Certainly, as opposed to Amusing Television.

Here we have a video of one very prominent offering representative of this genre; a show I used to watch, and let me be honest, if re-runs of  the original King Kong or Godzilla had been available in this "time slot" I would have much preferred them. But this was Sunday morning and you either got a religious program with a whacky name like Lamp Unto my Feet or you got some news re-hash or you got some political thingie like Meet the Press. For some reason back then, the idea was that Sunday morning was not supposed to be amusing, at least, not the ways that weekday, prime-time nights were supposed to be. And in New York City, where I grew up and spent my adult working life, you couldn't buy alcohol or go shopping or find broadcast amusement on Sunday morning, either. You either went to church or you watched intellectual TV.

This video is of a show called The Open Mind. And how did we know that this was Intellectual Television? For one thing, it was aired by PBS... for another, the opening credits were sedate and artful, accompanied by serious 'modern music' and the show's host, Richard Heffner, spoke in an engaging, but purposefully not show bizzy tone, with polished diction bespeaking his hyper-intelligent, and no doubt, academically distinguished bonafides.  And, if you didn't catch on to that quickly, well, he was wearing a sports jacket and a sweater vest and tie. You know, like a real college professor. And his guests would wear gray business suits. By the way, I think this show is still aired on PBS with Mr. Heffner's nephew filling his spot after he passed. But I recommend you go to YouTube to take a look at some of the old episodes, like this interview with Neil Postman from 1985. You'll find a bunch of them there.

Mr. Postman, a popular author of books of a genre we might describe as social analysis and commentary, was a long term professor at NYU. He got a good many of us thinking about things, especially in the field of education where he was something of a radical. His book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, moved me and a good many colleagues to question traditional teaching and focus on better understandings and approaches. And that, let me tell you, readers, was no mean feat back in the '70s!

In this video, Mr. Heffner engages Mr. Postman in a conversation about his book, 'Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.'  Of his 18 published books, this was the one that put Mr. Postman over the top; made him a household name and much sought after authority on the ways that technology shapes our society, as well as reflects the shape into which society has emerged. Importantly, in the '80s, when this book was published, technology meant: Television. Want the book's central thesis in a micro-summary? (Hey, it's what we run on these days :)... That the format and popularity of TV, something that has evolved due to its potential to amuse, has eroded our society's ability to engage in, and provide for the masses, serious discourse (who talks like this anymore?) and that we are much the worse for this. We are amused, yes, but... What are we? What have we become? It ain't what it should be, folks!

And this, dear hearts, is the way smart people used to think and talk back in the day - back when technology was considered as something of an invading force instead of what it really is, something WE created for ourselves in order to do more of what WE want to do and do it better. Back then, serious, smart people somehow had the sense that if they simply railed hard enough at the advances of technology and the ways they felt our society was suffering from them, then somehow, if they wished hard enough, it would all just go away, or perhaps become something other than what it was becoming, so that things could be nice again! Ha!

Sorry, Neil, as big a fan of yours as I am, as big a fan as I am of smart thinking and books that communicate it, as much as I like serious discourse and have high hopes, too, that our society will turn out alright in the end... SORRY, but you got it SOoooooooooo wrong!

On the other side of things, pal, the bright side, what we have stumbled on is a way to truly inform masses of people... ways of engaging them in serious stuff, important stuff, but in ways that wouldn't have looked serious back when you and your host wore ties on TV in order to signal your status as ranking intellectuals. Alas, those days are gone, Neil, but then again, welcome to YouTube!

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