Is cable television is hurtful or helpful for our society in 2015? This is not a new question. 2015 marks the 30 year anniversary of the 1985 publication of Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." Postman's book lays out multiple arguments that show how cable television is ruining the momentum that American educators spent years establishing.
Postman begins his argument stating that the world today looks more like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" than George Orwell's "1984." Orwell's famous dystopian novel portrays a society that is marked by censorship, Big Brother, and government oppression. In contrast Huxley's dystopian novel portrays a society addicted to pleasure, where the truth would be "drowned in a sea of irrelevance." Huxley feared that we would become passive people and obsessed with the trivial. As Huxley says himself, those paranoid about censorship "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distraction.”
After reading Postman's book it is easy to see that the biggest threat to our society is not a totalitarian government that takes away our freedoms, but a society that becomes consumed with pleasure and entertainment so much that it fails to care about what is true or false anymore. Postman’s argument is stronger than ever in light of today’s society. Yet no one seems care.
Today there are more distractions and diversions than ever. “Millennials” are not the only ones who suffer from attention and focus shortages. Yet, few people have taken Postman's warnings seriously since they were first published in 1985.For whatever reason, we did not feel threatened by television enough to start a national conversation about the negative effects of too much TV. Perhaps it is more politically fashionable to become paranoid about the government gaining too much control or censorship. The 1980's and 1990’s had national movements focused on preventing children from doing drugs and smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately, there were not many (if any) movements to prevent children (or adults) from watching television. I wonder: what would be different in 2015, if Americans had taken Neil Postman's book seriously in the mid 1980's? Imagine if the Millennial grew up watching 30 minutes of television per day rather than 3 or 4 hours?
If Americans had taken Postman's book seriously, I think we would have more self-control and focus. Cable television normalized the culture of trivial facts and news. Cable television started the first newsfeed of meaningless information for us to be distracted by 24/7. Writing in 1855, Henry David Thoreau said it best: "We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." The habit of watching television has trained many Americans to feel they need new stories or information. The transition to rely on a Facebook and Twitter to feed our "news" appetites is a smooth one. The hunger for some kind of stimulation now hinders our ability to live a focused life, which in the long run can hurt productivity and quality of life.
Why didn’t people take Postman’s book seriously and stop watching television? The implications of Postman’s book are so counter-cultural that it is easy to sort of push the argument aside. The suggestion of selling your television for your intellectual health might be the equivalent of hearing from your doctor that you need to lose 20 pounds. The life change (diet and exercise) that is required to lose 20 pounds feels so extreme that it is easier to just ignore it. It is the painful experience of actually making the changes that prevents people from living out this old truth. Postman’s book laid out what I like to call “an old truth.” An “old truth” is a reality or truth that most everyone accepts (perhaps as common sense) but conveniently ignores because it is too true or counter-cultural to put into practice. Sometimes “new truths” or "new research" seem more interesting because we can engage with them in theory rather than in practice.
I took Postman's book seriously in 2004 and stopped watching television. I no longer have to watch Nicholas Cage running from exploding helicopters. I no longer have to watch Rachel McAdams act in romantic comedy narratives. I no longer flip through channels looking for "something to watch." I am no longer the target of hundreds of marketers and therefore less likely to believe products will fulfill my deepest desires.
If I lived for 500 years on earth, I would have time for television. But since I only have about 75 years, I do not. I am 31 years old and there are many goals I have yet to accomplish. My so-called "bucket-list" cannot co-exist with television. The things listed on my "bucket list" are things listed that I want to do. I cannot waste my time filling up my mind up with the narratives of fictional characters. Instead I am trying to fulfill and struggle through my own goals, desires and story. Not watching television is more about attempting to live my own story, an original story where I am the leader in which I will be content when it comes my time to die. Don't you feel the same way? We must write down the way we intend on living and remind ourselves of what we want rather than being told by the TV screen.