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Chapter 11 – The Huxleyan Warning
Postman reminds us that there are two models of how a culture "may be shriveled": either it "becomes a prison" or it "becomes a burlesque" (155). It is this latter, Huxleyan, reality that Postman believes has overtaken our culture.
Postman acknowledges that there are many places in the world where the tyranny of thought control, like Orwell describes, exist. But he does not see America that way. Instead, he believes America is threatened by "an enemy with a smiling face," where "Big Brother does not watch us…We watch him" (155).
America, in Postman's view, has moved with amazing speech to "accommodate itself to the technological distractions" of television, thereby killing printed language (156). He admits that those who protest against such a world often seem hyperbolic, but that is only because the problem itself is not admitted as a problem; in fact, it is viewed as "banal" (156).
The evils of television culture were not prophesied, and subscribe to no identifiable ideology. And yet he finds it inexcusable that the world has not prepared itself to deal with the way television inherently changes our discourse. He understands that in 1905, people could not predict the way that the automobile would not only bring luxury, but also redefine the way we make decisions and understand space. However, by the time television arrived, we should have known that "technology comes equipped with a program for social change," and that a new media-metaphor (whatever one calls it) is not a neutral thing (157). Instead, we allowed this change to come with the implicit belief that it was moving us towards some utopia.
Postman then admits that he cannot offer solutions for two reasons: most people do not believe the problem needs a cure, and there probably is no solution in any case. However, he does offer some suggestions.
The first suggestion is to cede any argument that television can be taken away. Not only will Americans never shut down the conveniences brought by technology, but neither can they be stopped from developing more sophisticated technology to replace it. Television has defined our culture, and so it must be acknowledged first as a part of it.
Further, he does not quite believe that the content of television is the problem. As he mentioned at the beginning, he believes that "junk" is television's most valuable output, since it makes no pretense towards anything serious (159).
Since the problem is not "what people watch…[but] that we watch, [then] the solution must be found in how we watch" (160). He believes that our world has yet to truly discover what television actually is as a medium, and as a result, there have been too few conversations about it.
He lists a series of questions that should be addressed, about the nature of information, about the psychic effects of each form of information, and about how it changes our definitions of basic concepts. He believes we need to ask questions like these so as to force a dialogue with television, which otherwise dictates without allowing any response.
In order to demystify television of the hold it has on us, he proposes two ideas. The first he admits as "nonsensical:" to create programming that would "demonstrate how television ought to be viewed (161). Through parodies, these programs could criticize the medium and raise awareness, although in order to be successful, they would have to co-opt the amusing qualities that television demands, and thereby defeat themselves.
The second answer, which he admits is "desperate," is to address the problem through the schools. Of course, he acknowledges that this reveals a typically American faith in the possibilities of education, which he says have yet to truly investigate the way that the written word affects our minds. He is somewhat optimistic, however, to note that teachers are becoming more "media conscious" in the face of the emerging personal computer (162).
Ultimately, he believes that awareness is the key – the problem for Huxley was not "that [people] were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking" (163). The Brave New World had lost control of itself, and Postman hopes that we will not follow in its wake.
In this concluding chapter, Postman seems well aware that he might seem a cantankerous Luddite for having spouted against television at such length and with such vitriol. That his career as a media theorist explicitly disproves such an interpretation is of little value – we know how well aware he is of the power of an image, and he perhaps fears he falls into the image of the lunatic warning of end-times.
However, he achieves a balance here of high-stakes language and pragmatic discussion. As Andrew Postman notes in the Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition, the Orwell/Huxley dichotomy is something of a "hook" - a way to engage readers into what might otherwise seem an academic work. Naturally, he has to return to it. And yet he ties it together in a rather sophisticated way that reveals how competently he has argued his thesis. It is possible to see serious echoes of the Huxley dystopia in Postman's depiction of a television-obsessed America, even though the initial warnings seemed extremely harsh. Postman has conducted an assault less on television than on us – we are allowing bad things to happen to us, and we should wake up if we want to do better.
Though he has made it clear throughout, it is worth mentioning here that Postman does limit his critique to America. To deny that Orwell's version of tyranny exists in some places around the world would be naïve, but such oppression does not concern his argument. He means to suggest that America, while so successfully shaking the shackles described in 1984, has fallen into an equally threatening dystopia.
The question should be asked at this point whether Amusing Ourselves to Death remains relevant for a world less defined by the media-metaphor of television than by the media-metaphor of the Internet. This chapter would certainly suggest that Postman would believe so. His slight mention of computers is less prescient than the way he describes a world that seeks constant stimulation, excitement, and entertainment. The concept of changing the channel has reached a new apex with the Internet, where one can find more disassociated information, sometimes several tabs' worth at a time, than even Postman could have imagined when he wrote this book. Some of the ideas may seem quaint at times, but the warning captured here remains one worth considering.
Finally, Amusing Ourselves to Death is sometimes criticized for not offering a solution to the many problems it details. The suggestions and potential solutions offered in this chapter are interesting, but he reveals their limitations even as he presents them. However, each of his proposed solutions reveals his belief that we might be able to transcend our most basic feelings. The first step towards counteracting the harmful effects of television are to recognize the way that it has an inherent bias towards a certain kind of discourse; to acknowledge that no technology is neutral; and that while our society is certainly defined by our media-metaphor, that we still have the option to allow or confront those limitations. We must study media as an idea in order to understand it as an actuality, which is all the more important because of the myriad medias that today compete for our attention. We must constantly discuss the way we are being affected by it, and allow education to have a part in our children's understanding of technology (in the same way that the existence of Internet addiction has been acknowledged as a serious affliction in the past decade). Change cannot come until awareness does, and it is this more than anything that Postman wishes to impart.