To amuse doesn't just mean to entertain much less to do so
in a pleasant way. Webster's dictionary has two obsolete definitions that we
need to keep in mind when thinking about Neil Postman's critique of modern
society: that we are amusing ourselves to death.
We can very easily amuse ourselves into ignoring all sorts
of things by escaping into the pleasant and enjoyable. This is what most people
will think when they hear the phrase 'amusing ourselves to death'. This is
indeed one path, but it is the obvious one and not the one we are on.
Postman is quick to point out that the most obvious and
popularly suspected path to a dystopia is usually not the one that will be
followed. We are too smart and alert for that.
He points out that the Orwellian dystopia of 1984 is indeed
possible but not as likely as the less known and feared dystopia of Huxley's
Brave New World. Orwell talks of a totalitarian society that rules over its
people with fear and pain, where information is restricted and tightly
controlled. Huxley's version has people going along with the totalitarian
regime because they are trained to do so and are rewarded (or distracted from
anything else) with pleasure. Information does not need to be hidden or
restricted because people are out of the habit of looking for it and are too
busy indulging in pleasure to bother.
Postman thinks what we are actually heading for is something
much more akin to Huxley's vision. We will not want to read or think or
question because we will be busy entertaining ourselves (and consuming). We
will be indulging in escapism and be confident that we can do so indefinitely
with no real consequences. What is worse is that when we do come back from our
escape, we are not capable of thinking or communicating in deep, meaningful and
constructive ways because we have lost the ability to: amusement and escapism
cause our thinking and communication skills to atrophy.
What is really dangerous about this is that there is no
organized conspiracy that is doing this to us. The forces that are degrading us
through amusement are fragmented and unorganized. They are all just out for
their own profit and not colluding to control society. While that means that
there is no puppet master pulling the strings and controlling us all, it also
means there is no one or no force keeping society together and keeping us from
slowing destroying the modern world and society that has been built up over the
past two centuries or more.
In short, the main difference between Huxley's dystopia and
our modern reality is that A Brave New World had puppet masters behind the
scenes making sure it all runs smoothly and is sustainable, while our reality
is one that tends more and more towards being unsustainable the more we amuse
This is not a dystopia where a group of people's idea of a
perfect world or society (a utopia) goes wrong and becomes more horrible and
repressive than wonderful and liberating. This is a decent into chaos and
disorder and has every potential to be more horrible and repressive than a
But back to the word amuse: Are we really amusing ourselves
into a downward spiral? The hate and fear that has gripped a large portion of
the US and most of its media is not pleasant escapism. The news and politics
are not pleasant and entertaining; they are often frightening and angry, and
they inspire anger and hate.
The two obsolete definitions of amuse shed light on this: 1)
to occupy the attention of, absorb
2) distract, bewilder. These do not necessarily have
anything to do with pleasure. They do however have a lot to do with escapism
and keeping our attention.
The media and internet distract and bewilder us with
mountains of information, misinformation, trivia and data that keep us from
paying attention to what is really around us (people, events, problems) and
keep us from making decisions or taking action in regards to them even when we
do see them. We are first distanced from everything and then paralyzed by the
sheer amount of stuff coming at us.
After a while of course, we become numb to the flood that we
find ourselves constantly immersed in. At that point you might think that we
would find a shore, any shore, to crawl on to and dry out. If we did, we would
likely be overwhelmed by the reality and problems we had been distracted from.
We may choose to dive back into the flood and stay. But the media cannot allow
us to even have that reprieve or the ability to make that choice. They also
cannot allow us to remain numb and passive because their business model is
based on keeping us actively tuned in.
As a result, they find ways to keep us engaged. After we
have taken on all of the mindless pleasing entertainment we can handle and feel
a need to do something, feel something, we become restless. In that
restlessness we become susceptible to fear, anger and hate.
It is no longer easy or even possible to lead us into an
escape from all reality and problems, so the media leads us back into
caricatures of selected realities and problems that are constructed in such a
way that we cannot sit back and be passive in the face of them. (Part of the
reason we fall for this is that our thinking and communication skill have
atrophied.) These grotesque representations of reality are so inflammatory,
divisive and seemingly urgent that we must have an opinion and a strong one at
that. In this way, the media keeps us insulated from the real problems, the
real world, and at the same time keeps us engaged, keeps us from feeling
detached and numb.
I am not saying that this is done intentionally, far from
it. I doubt that anyone laid this out as a plan and is trying to get something
out of it, like political or economic control. It is merely what is happening
as people and the media try to make money, keep informed and feel relevant.
And, that is the biggest problem: no one is in control. Through this amusement
that is more and more filled with fear, anger and hate, we are throwing
ourselves down the spiral towards chaos. We are not in or heading into a
dystopia where some evil elite or force is in control; we are heading into
chaos, and as we go we are destroying our personal abilities and the societal
structures necessary to combat that chaos.
It isn’t a path filled with pleasure, but it is a road of amusement that
can lead to the death of modern society.