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Amusing Ourselves to Death


George Orwell feared that what we hated would destroy us. Aldous Leonard Huxley worried that we would be ruined by what we loved. The printing age produced rational thinkers, and the television age made people entertain to death. The media has shaped human cognition through subtle invisible forces.


In the 19th century, the printing age created rational, speculative Americans. As Neil Postman put it, this is closely related to the reading culture, because the writing system is perfect for conveying speculative ideas. But television is the opposite. This media technology is not fit for serious logical thinking. The average time per shot on television is only 3.5 seconds, full of visual stimuli and dynamic switching. So Postman said with great disdain: On TV, complicated diction, sufficient evidence and logic are useless. Sometimes even syntax is thrown aside. But it doesn't matter. Politicians care to impress the audience, not to leave them a point of view. In his time, TV sets emerged to make great changes in our lives. The channels of communication of the media spread wide and convenient, not confined to newspapers and telegrams as before. This speed push allowed us to get in touch with information at each step more quickly. To attract the audience, TV programs naturally did not communicate in the traditional way of teaching. So the pattern of entertainment emerged.


Literature, religion and music want to advance with such a convenient tool, and find a way to be accepted by ordinary people. The way of entertainment has solved the problem. I think it was of significance in the early days of this phenomenon. People of that era did not have much opportunity to learn more knowledge, and the entertainment of television would reflect its value. Postman thought that television wass especially suitable for entertainment programs. So entertainment is actually the best use of television.


But that's not what happened next. Not only those who passed the time, but also some who were really thirst for knowledge had got used to studying on TV. Is that really good? Of course, I can't claim there's no knowledge on TV. The problem is simply with its way of expression, which is too attached to the psychological needs of ordinary people, that is, too blind and obedient. If we think about serious political messages with TV, it will become a species of entertainment to death. The book noted that culture would be a farce, and what awaited us might be a "brave new world" of entertainment to death, where "what makes people miserable is not they laugh instead of thinking, but that they don't know why they laugh and why they don't think any more". 


Such a result is frightening. The myriad beings enjoy the joys of life just for the fun. There is nothing entertainment can do about generating a set of theories to explain and recognize the world. When the world has a rare moment of quieting down in a dark context, anxiety and powerlessness will spread like plague. Only when the next carnival of entertainment falls will the crowd bid farewell to the grave-like silence. This vicious circle has become a stable mechanism and the focus of infection of our time. We rely on an inexplicable behavior, but don't know why, and don’t even want to think about it. Such a way of cultural transmission is changing our lives.


In Postman's time, computers were not as irreplaceable in daily lives as they are today. But he still warned about the foreseeable computer age. Today's facts are more pessimistic than he suspected. We are now submerged in all kinds of electronic information. No matter how electronic products contact us, its deductive way has never changed, as it has always put entertainment first. One of the biggest problems of the Internet is to let us lose the patience of reading and thinking.


Why are we afraid? It is not that entertainment will corrupt us, but that we simply think of everything as entertainment, or even give up the entertainment of thinking.

作者简介 About Author

沈佳祺 Johnson Shen


“Every occasion of encounter is a reunion after a long separation. I have been working at CNOOD for more than six years before I know it. I am always filled with positive energy in such a mutually caring and self-promoting organization. With a free and useless soul, I’m going across every corner of the world.”


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