Still Amusing Ourselves to Death?


"Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance." -- Neil Postman

Two things happened this week that made me appreciate the continuing relevance of Neil Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Publishers Weekly described the book as an exploration of television as a hostile attack on literate culture. Written in the mid-1980s, Postman's critiques seem to apply more and more in our media-saturated society today, with the Internet expanding the so-called trivial nature of our popular culture's media usage.

The first thing that happened this week was the mass media's extensive coverage of Michael Jackson's death and memorial service, overshadowing other newsworthy items such as the Climate Change debate from the Group of 8 meeting and the multiple issues surrounding President Obama's visit to Russia. The second was a comment that a friend of mine made to me: "Nick, you have a Master's Degree. Why are you blogging about sci-fi and cartoons?"

Regarding the first, are the mass media fulfilling their business goals by merely providing coverage of what the population wants, or does the population crave such seemingly trivial information because that's what the mass media continue to spoon-feed viewers? It's a vicious cycle. Give people what they want or what they need? Cover issues like nuclear proliferation and health care reform even if it means ratings and revenue will drop? My answer is that the media professionals need to find a way to do both. Use the skills they've learned in entertainment to make the important issues more engaging for the general public. It's like teaching -- you can blame students all you want for lack of attention, but it's eventually the teacher's responsibility to find new, effective ways to reach them and teach them.

Regarding the content of my blog, I don't pretend that this forum of mine is my platform for "great ideas." Although I've tried to bring up topics that I thought might stir some interesting discussion (like the non-linear storytelling of Lost and the alleged sexism of Classic Star Trek), I'm writing about the things that grab my interest in the stories I read and watch, and propel my creative endeavors in acting and writing. Some people might view superheroes and science fiction as childish escapes to be abandoned in adulthood, but I view them as modern-day myths that can and do address very grown-up issues for audiences of all ages.

Back in 1999, I had started the City of Kik newsgroup to talk about speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy) and the world of entertainment. It became very popular. I felt the need to expand and create separate newsgroups to address off-topic discussions for "more important" dialogue, so I created City of Utopia to discuss politics and City of Paradise to discuss religion. (I also created City of Sports.) Except for peaks during the Presidential Elections, the entertainment-based City of Kik still is the most popular of the bunch. People want their sports and movies and thriller novels and reality television to escape the more heady happenings of their day-to-day existence.
That doesn't mean that mainstream media should ignore their responsibility to focus on topics that matter but might not draw equitable ratings with the King of Pop. And the fact that the public are now blogging and becoming citizen journalists doesn't excuse the professional media from their duties as they try to imply that the burden rests on us to propel the discussion.

New Media have started to even the playing field and change the landscape from the strictly "one-way" communication that television was in the days when Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. But it certainly seems that despite the capability for new technology to democratize mass communications and fulfill media's potential to better serve society, we are continuing to spiral down toward a world of media static -- "sound and fury signifying nothing."

I'm obviously not one of those who condemns popular culture as the culprit of modern society's woes. I embrace pop culture. But I think people need to balance some healthy meals with their junk food snacks. And you can't just blame pop culture and the arts for what's wrong with media. There is a place and a need for fantasy entertainment. But we need to also reach higher if we hope to amuse ourselves to a life worth living.

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