Amusing Ourselves to Death

The present strongly anchors how we think about the past and future states of the world. Think about it — because we live in the present and know it most intimately, we often distort the past and future by filtering it through the present moment. We only catch glimpses of the past through studying history, and subconsciously fill in the many gaps through our knowledge of the present. Similarly, because we can only guess at the future, we imagine it by extending the most visible current trends.

So we’re often unaware how pervasively the present influences our view the past or future. For example, the diamond engagement ring seems a long-standing tradition. Yet it was only in the 1930s that advertising agencies invented its appropriateness for middle-class wedding engagements. It’s almost equally surprising that in 1884, as was the convention, young FDR wore prim white skirts and sported shoulder-length hair — a gender-neutral outfit for children at the time — but odd through the lens of the present.

More central to the topic of this post, we might similarly believe that the ability of the average American to digest and reason about complex arguments is approximately equal to what it was in the past, or to what it might become in the future. Or, we might believe that if anything, our  cognitive abilities have tended to increase over our history.

However, perhaps after watching a film like Idiocracy, you may suspect that things may not in fact be so rosy. The film portrays a dystopian future in which stupidity is universal. The argument in the film is that if increasingly stupid people out-breed those that are smarter people, then stupidity may evolve to become dominant. While interesting, this trend would require many, many generations of evolution to be realized. Instead, I want to focus on a more subtle but fast-acting means for stupidity to spread.

It’s generally under-appreciated how strongly the evolution of media can impact our behavior. It’s not until later that we might  recognize how texting has shaped children’s development, or how ceaseless fountains of content like reddit or facebook train us. Is it easier to watch a funny video on YouTube or read a novel? Which might better develop our ability to understand the complexities of the world?

Media can influence how often and how deeply we think, and as a result, it can change how we understand and interact with the world. In this way, the rise of a flashy new medium, as it displaces old media, has the potential to significantly impact culture and behavior. For example, when the dominant medium of a culture is printed and spoken language, there is greater exposure to abstract arguments and thoughts, because the printed language is especially suited to book-length nuanced arguments.

Reading a book or article requires focused concentration. In contrast, a flashy largely-visual medium like television is more easily digested and often trades intellectual complexity for visual stimulation. A culture dominated by television may be much less exposed to abstract thought. And just as one becomes better at the things one does more often, the reading-based culture may be better at dealing with abstract arguments than the TV-based culture.

Television is well-suited to present us with highly-visual novel stimuli. We like seeing a succession of new flashy pretty entertaining things. TV does this much more effectively than a static text-based medium. Interestingly, the internet has taken flashiness and superficiality to new extremes. For example, while television shows were generally a half-hour long and have some plot or substance, a YouTube video can be thirty seconds long and consist of only a cat doing something funny. Taking this trend to a recent new extereme is the emergence of vine, a medium constraining videos to five seconds, a time length in which it is impossible to relate anything of intellectual substance. And yet it is addictive and fun to watch. It is amusing.

But let’s focus on television for now. With any medium there is coevolution between what viewers want or enjoy, and the products that companies provide through that medium. This is the free market at work. TV stations will attempt to give viewers what they want to maximize ad revenue. For example, a TV program that featured me reading the dictionary would draw few viewers, and few advertiser dollars. A TV program with lots of fuzzy kittens bouncing about might get more viewers, and more ad dollars.

An interesting dynamic is that if TV shows that offer mindless entertainment are in fact what humans are often drawn to watch, programming will likely shift in that direction. In Idiocracy, the most popular show, “Ow! My Balls!”, is a modern tragedy in which the protagonist suffers repeated and novel violence to his testicles. While not quite thoroughly as mindless, the rise of celebrity and reality TV offers similar unending easy-to-watch novelty with little intellectual stimulation. Their popularity suggests that such mindless fun is what many people want to watch. A TV station would be foolish not to play such material, even if everyone realizes at heart it is trash.

So, who’s to blame? Companies aren’t really to blame, because they are giving us what we want, after all. Are we to blame, for wanting what we want? It seems like we can’t help but want what we want; there is something about mindless fun, like a tasty dessert, that is hard to resist. Is television itself to blame? It is just a mindless medium, a potential means for dispersing information.

So it’s hard to understand how to address the underlying problem, which is that sometimes what we want isn’t what is best for us as a species. While mindless entertainment may be fun, if it hampers our ability as a culture to intelligently discuss issues, television may become a destructive force for humanity.

So what can be done? Awareness seems a necessary precondition for anyone to change how they interact with media. By becoming aware of  how media affects us, we can take a step back. We can observe TV (or websites such as facebook, youtube, or vine), we can catalog its effects upon us, and decide if we are happy with what habits and behaviors these new media breed within humans.

Ultimately, what I think we’ll find is that  our own human desires and weaknesses, while once manageable, become overwhelmed and exploited by new powerful technologies that like drugs give us exactly what we want and yet shouldn’t have: A ceaseless stream of entertaining, amusing, and largely empty content.


If this line of thought interests you, it is based on my reading of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a powerful book written in 1985 that explores the rise of radio and television, and the corresponding changes these new media imposed upon society and culture.

2 thoughts on “Amusing Ourselves to Death

  1. As I kept reading, I kept expecting you to allude, however briefly, to the fact that the exact same arguments you make about TV (and newer media) have been leveled at radio, dime novels, comic books, novels in general, etc. TvTropes has a great list that starts with Plato’s Phaedrus and writing itself: The fact that people have been worried about new media as they’re created does not rule out the possibility that a given medium did *not* pose cognitive obstacles for its adopters—it certainly could have, and maybe those risks were alleviated by other developments in society or somehow ameliorated such that society didn’t crumble because of that medium. I just expected you to, if not identify yourself with this long-standing tradition (detailed by TvTropes in the above link), at least mention in passing how your analysis hoped to be different from them.

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