Sunday, November 02, 2008

Amusing Ourselves to Death


One clear message from the recent Russell Brand / Jonathan Ross controversy is that the media loves nothing better than to talk about itself. A media-created celebrity in some kind of trouble will generate mountains of pointless coverage, airtime and column inches throughout the media kingdom. The media loves to do this because in a way this cements its' own importance, justifies its own existence, asserts its' own supremacy. And the more media channels there are, the more stories it needs to talk about. And so the cycle of banality goes on and on.

A great story is told of an announcement made in the US Congress in the late 1800s, declaring that the building of the telegram network had been completed, and that Washington could now communicate with everyone in the United States from Maine to California. One wise old Congressman, unconvinced by the wonder of this technological achievement, rose to his feet and said "But what if Maine and California have nothing useful to say?". And so it is with the ongoing increase of media channels in our generation.

The best analysis of the influence of the media that I have ever read is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by the late American author Neil Postman. I first read it about 15 years ago. But as the dumbing down of the Western world charges on at an alarming pace, its' message is more relevant now than ever. Buy it here. Other excellent books by Postman are The Disappearance of Childhood and How to Watch TV News.

Of course, blogs are a new, independent, alternative media - and just as prone to pumping out garbage as any other. Back in 1995, Postman gave this interview about the internet:

Put "Amusing Ourselves to Death" on your Christmas list. It'll be like a dose of reality as everyone else in your house dozes through the James Bond re-runs.