>> 25 Mar 2004

The Friday Essay.


One of my favourite philosophical reference points is a wonderful book called “Amusing ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. In this seminal work, first published back in the mid-80’s, the author constructs an impressive argument around the central thesis that our modern TV media-led world is destroying the concept of political debate, reducing attention spans, and….now what was I going to say…oh yes, dumbing down our civilisation! By transforming every facet of our culture into entertainment, is TV taking away our ability to remember or to think for ourselves?

Published just after the momentous year of 1984 had passed, Postman’s thesis is that George Orwell’s vision of a society being overcome by an externally imposed oppression is unlikely. Instead, he posits a much more frightening scenario; that outlined by Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World.” In this dark nightmare, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their freedom and history. Huxley argued instead that people will come to embrace their oppression, to adore the technologies that limit their ability to think.

The contrasts between the Orwellian view and that of Huxley are stark. Orwell feared that books would be banned. Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban books because no one would want to read one! Orwell feared that we would be starved of information. Huxley feared that we would be given information overload. Orwell feared the truth would be hidden from us. Huxley feared the truth would be obscured in a sea of utter irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

In the magnificent “1984” Orwell portrayed a people held captive by pain. In “Brave New World” Huxley portrayed a people kept captive by pleasure. Orwell feared that which we hate will destroy us. Huxley feared that which we love will ruin us.

In this era of the Internet coming into every home, at this time when we have dozens of TV channels, is it possible to determine if Orwell or Huxley was closer to the mark?

I think the evidence is clear, twenty years after Postman asked the question. Just look at the popularity of TV culture such as Reality shows! “Get me out of here, I’m a Celebrity” achieves stellar audiences. Millions tune in to watch third rate celebrities discuss extreme inanities. Office conversations the following day all concern themselves with what Peter and Jordan have gotten up to, and whether Kerry or Jenny can last the course. This at a time when western civilisation is at war with Islamic Jihadists hell-bent on wiping us out!

Consider the growth of the World Wide Web. There are millions of web sites on just about every topic one could imagine. (…and some on topics that few would want to imagine!) Yet despite this huge information highway, available into more and more homes 24 hours a day, many people are less well informed than in the past. Literacy levels have dropped not increased. Attention spans have shortened, not lengthened.

Postman gets to grips with all this by explaining that in our modern era, TV has not just become more than just a medium for our culture, it has transcended that and become our culture! He lays out the dangers of this in a wonderful comparison. Postman explains that the primitive technology of smoke signals were unlikely to have been used to express profound political philosophy on the simple premise that puffs of smoke were not really suitable for expressing detailed philosophical axioms! (Never mind the amount of wood one would need!) Pursuing this analogy we need to understand that TV is a VISUAL media which gives us a conversation in pictures not words. The importance of image on TV over words is obvious. The set designers, the camera-men, the image makers, these are the very important people. Writers are not so big a deal. So rather like smoke signals, you can’t do philosophy on TV. And that’s not all.

Let me provide a further example from my own experience. On several TV programmes, I have tried to logically explain the evil of terrorism and the threat it poses to the democratic process. I have attempted to argue this without taking “sides” over any terrorist groups, as I believe them all to be evil. Such an explanation is of itself lengthy and I have experienced the visceral impatience of the hosts on such programmes wanting to move me onto another sound-bite, fearing that viewers might be moving their fingers to the remote control. It didn’t matter what I said, it did matter how long I took to say it. The nature of the media controls the subject matter.

This leads me to argue, in this written tableau, that substantive political debate cannot happen on contemporary Television. At best one will have 30-60 seconds to construct detailed arguments and make several key points. In reality this cannot be done. Instead snappy one-liners are reached for. I know - I’ve done it! But believe me; a flashy phrase will never convince any political opponent that perhaps their argument needs more reflection. TV politics is Disney-gladiatorial, designed to appeal to viewers at all costs. That is why I find programmes like “Question Time” frustrating – the nature of the programmes means trite triumphs over substance every time. Make the audience laugh, throw in a pithy one-liner but don’t be so unwise as to carefully explain your position. That is just too dull!

The popularity of TV is undeniable. For many people, it has become an indispensable part of their daily lives. They gain their take on world affairs from it. For some, it is a reliable friend in the corner, always able to entertain them, and give them regular hourly “updates” on what is happening. This disguises the disturbing truth that TV has its own agenda, predicated on visual imagery, and on instantly communicable ideas. It is also driven entirely by ratings. It seeks to hold viewers by constantly changing the subject.

Orwell feared that culture would become a prison. Huxley feared it would become a burlesque. It seems to me that much as I admire and respect George Orwell, it was in fact Aldous Huxley who has most accurately prophesised what would happen to us. We are laughing all the way to cultural oblivion, forgetting why and caring less.


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