In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published a book called Common Sense: The Origin and Design of Government. It sold 100,000 copies in the first two months. Today, a book would have to sell 11,000,000 copies to match the proportion of the population that Paine’s book reached. Common Sense went on to print somewhere between 300,000-400,000 copies, equivalent to somewhere between 33,000,000-44,000,000 people today. As Postman notes in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the “only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.”
In the mid 1800s, Abraham Lincoln and one of his political adversaries (Stephen A. Douglas) used to have public debates that lasted hours. Each participant would get a minimum of an hour of speaking time before the other rose for a rebuttal, and debates could often last upwards of 4 hours. What is even more remarkable is that the audience of regular common people was rapt with attention for the entire affair. Today, politicians are given 1 minute to give an opinion on a major issue and their opponent is expected to keep their rebuttal to 30 seconds.
So, there is a definitive difference in the mainstream intelligence of people from our past in comparison to people today. How did this come to be? Postman posits that it is due to the rise of television as our main source of information gathering. In the 17th and 18th centuries ideas were shared via writing (and if you go back father, to the days of humanity before writing and reading were wide-spread, when ideas were only shared orally, the scholars and politicians of the day were those select men with a knack for oratorical skills.) Postman notes how the first fifteen presidents of the United States most likely wouldn’t have been recognized by their citizens on the street, yet those same citizens could have identified them by their latest speech or piece of distributed writing. Today, things are quite different. Postman wrote this book in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan was president—a man who was previously a big time Hollywood actor in the 1960s and built a national reputation as someone on the silver screen. Even more recently we endured the presidency of Donald Trump, the former host of a reality television series. Was Donald Trump a good politician? The debate is still out. Is he entertaining? Absolutely—he is the most entertaining politician we have ever had in the age of television and I personally am not surprised at all that he is the most popular politician in the United States right now.
The core argument of Postman’s book is not only that television changed how we receive information, but it changed our entire relationship to information on an epistemological level. Whereas writing is geared towards conceptual thinking, sequential order, careful reasoning, objectivity, and a delayed response, television is meant for entertainment. Television, with its constantly moving pictures and engaging sound effects, is meant to be amusing. When we indulge in TV for entertainment’s sake, sinking into the couch after a hard day’s work to watch our favorite half hour comedy, that is not the TV that Postman is talking about. The TV that has decimated attention spans and amused us to a breaking point is the TV that has infiltrated our religions, our politics, and our education systems. “As a television show, and a good one,” Postman writes, “Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.”
With television’s incorporation of the news cycle, our ways of learning about the world are also stunted. We get a story about the Middle East, and then a minute later we’re hearing about gridlock in the Senate, quickly followed by a story about a dog riding a crocodile in Florida. These are all entertaining stories to be sure, but what do they all have in common? For 99% of us, they have no impact on our daily lives. Do I wish there was less violence in the Middle East? Of course. What can I actually do about it? Essentially nothing. With all the graphic images and sounds coming out of the television screen, however, it is incredibly engaging and I can’t look away!
Television is designed to make everything it touches entertaining, and it has infiltrated our culture so much so that with the advancement of the internet and social media, the trends in this book have only exacerbated. “The form in which ideas are expressed affects what those idea will be,” Postman writes, and I couldn’t agree more. We the people now expect everything in life, whether it be news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion, etc., to entertain us. If it doesn’t, we don’t want it. Personally, I believe that our culture would benefit tremendously from a return to typography—a large part of the reason why I started reading and writing book reviews in the first place. Books are where real education lies, and in my opinion a better education is the way towards a better future. The internet has recently made huge swaths of information readily available (thanks Wikipedia!) so we now must take focus from what we are learning and return focus to how we go about learning it.