My beloved brother Don built our first television set in 1947 as he began a career in electronics after a gig in the Navy at the end of World War II. We became the hit of the neighborhood with this contraption in the living room of our Philadelphia house. Kids and adults would come in to gawk at the handful of programs available; some of you reading this column may remember sitting and simply watching the test pattern. Hard to believe, but in those days there was not enough programming to fill a twenty-four hour cycle.
We have not owned a television for eighteen years now. We were not raising a moral flag when we gave it up, although we certainly thought of it mostly as a luxury we could discard. Our other interests and commitments severely curtailed our viewing hours.
Neil Postman, the American educator, social critic, and writer gave us Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Postman made the case that Americans are becoming a distracted people who are losing the ability to focus on matters of substance because television, chiefly, and other “amusements” sidetrack us. Postman chose Huxley’s Brave New World as the key to our culture. In Huxley’s dystopian novel, people became addicted to “soma,” a drug that put them into a state of bliss so that they didn’t notice their rights were being taken away. For Postman, television had become our soma.
Postman explored how different levels of ideas are communicated, and he proclaimed that television was incapable, as a medium, of sustaining depth. Rational argument is expressed chiefly through the medium of print, he argued. This was in line with others like the social critic Ivan Illich who explored, for example, the simultaneous growth of the library and the university that fed each other toward the elevation of discourse.
We now call the phenomenon Postman identified “dumbing down” a subject, and it holds across the boards: everything is communicated in a way that diminishes rather than encourages people’s ability to think deeply, to the point where we accept bumper-sticker answers to real questions. The medium controls the message when it should be the other way round. Television relies upon the visual image to sell its ideas (and products via commercials) whereas deeper thinking needs reflective time and the sustenance of printed matter.
Postman was sure that both religion and politics were “dumbed down” by television. All historic spiritual forms of discourse have deep intellectual content and extensive ideas that require contemplation rather than snap decisions. Sound bytes and the rapid succession of images cannot express this stuff. So in Postman’s analysis the medium of television cannot communicate this depth.
Was Neil Postman right or have we moved onto another platform for achieving depth? That’s what some contemporary social critics tell us is happening as people become more and more accustomed to working with computers. Surely information is more readily available for those who wish to work in depth. The question is, of course, will we? Have we been so conditioned by television’s way of communicating that we will not be able to take advantage of the brave newer world?
I worry that people won’t see this as a problem. Diminishing intellectual content in any area of life is a problem worth addressing. After seventy years of television we may be so accustomed to “dumbing down” that we fail to notice. And that’s a problem. To fail to honor intelligence is a problem of the human spirit and that’s enough to begin some deep conversations…if it’s not too late.