We are amusing ourselves to death (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

September 11, 2023   5 mins

Of the very few activities in my life that I count as being unambiguously improving, reading books and visiting authoritarian states probably score highest. Both are generally engaging, educational in some form or other, and force me to confront alternative visions of life. I feel much the same way, whenever I dip into Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), which explores how and why populations might realistically become oppressed or compliant.

Postman was a cultural and media critic who wrote prophetically about the dangers of technology, and, more importantly, how it shapes society. That the book emerged from a talk he gave to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984 only gives it greater piquancy. There has never been a time in my political consciousness where people weren’t bloviating about the (either imminent or established) arrival of authoritarianism. And as far as reliable ways of spotting a bore go, hearing someone pronounce that our world is “Orwellian” is pretty much a failsafe.

This is because, unlike most cliches, it is self-evidently untrue. Apart from anything else, we in the West are hardwired to reject overt signs of totalitarianism. The Second World War is pretty much our only large-scale, and obviously righteous, military victory for about a century, and any form of governance that comes adorned with jackboots — physical or metaphorical — will be resisted. Our self-image depends on it.

Postman gets this. He envisages a future emerging not from the pages of 1984, but Brave New World. While Orwell feared those who would ban books, Huxley feared that there would be no reason to do so. Postman argued, using TV as his example (which is, very loosely speaking, his version of Huxley’s soothing, happiness-producing drug “soma”), that this is where things were headed: not enslavement by the state, but by our own appetites. His genius was to understand this fact during the Cold War, when the USSR offered a genuine authoritarian alternative; and to lay out exactly why and how it might emerge.

Like many media theorists, Postman understood how news “content” does not exist in the public consciousness independently of its medium. Stuff — wars, births, marriages, bank collapses and so on — obviously still happens. “[But] lacking a technology to advertise them,” he argues, “people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.” This idea — that there is a content called “the news of the day” — was, he continues, entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move “information over vast spaces at incredible speed”. Crucially, without a medium to create its form, the “news of the day” does not exist. “Our tools, our language, our media,” he writes, “[are what] create the content of our culture.”

It was the nature of this content that bothered Postman. For him, the city that had come to symbolise the United States was now Las Vegas, a place “entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment”. Politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce had been “transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business”.

In his day, with Ronald Reagan as President, he understood that the most adept — and often most entertaining — public performers were no longer professional entertainers but its abnormally attractive and well-groomed TV anchors and, more perniciously, its politicians. On TV, which is to say in the public consciousness, the credibility of the teller, and not what he or she was saying, had become the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. This naturally benefited a professional actor such as Reagan, while those who couldn’t perform suffered. As for Richard Nixon, it wasn’t that he was a liar that gave him a reputation for shiftiness throughout his career (before it imploded with Watergate). Kennedy lied lots, too. It was that Nixon looked like a liar.

In this kind of world, when “the credibility of a politician is not determined by whether or not they are lying, but by how well their performances generate a sense of verisimilitude”, the outcome is all too familiar: a leader like Donald Trump, or the useless and sinister Jeremy Corbyn, a first-class dullard and fanatic, who his supporters nonetheless saw as “authentic”.

Yet, Postman noted, truth is always “intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the ‘truth’ is a kind of cultural prejudice.” Imagine the Chancellor rapping the budget or a newsreader announcing the Queen’s death via a haiku. Truth is only ever a “product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented”. When those techniques become a “stylised dramatic performance that has been staged to entertain”, much that is serious is lost. Even worse is when what is serious needs to become a “stylised dramatic performance” in order to be heard.

This is a pretty apt description of the state of contemporary public discourse. People blame social media for this: its privileging of emotion over fact, the chaos of its global multiplicity of voices, and its desperate need for clicks and shares has, they argue, rendered the public sphere a vast digital circus. But, in truth, it really started with the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle. Suddenly, the facts relayed by a single presenter was no longer enough. Rolling hours needed to be padded out with “analysis” and “debate”, meaning the jabbering, gesticulating and haranguing chorus of experts, pundits and other entertainers that this involved.

After this, the step to the present moment was a small one. And what has suffered is, above all, the written word, and the qualities of concentration needed to engage with it. It is a fallacy that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; the car is not merely a fast horse. TV and social media have not amplified literate culture but attacked it. We began with Facebook and its statuses, which allowed you to write several paragraphs of content; then came Twitter with its 140 characters (which swelled to 180 and now, who knows?) and then Instagram, which privileges the visual over the written; followed by TikTok which sees anything beyond the most basic written description as a distraction.

What Postman wrote about 40 years ago is reaching its most mature expression yet. Public life has morphed into entertainment; the image subverts the written word; and there is so much information that we are unable to discern truth from lies. Huxley talked about a “vast descent into triviality”, but this is an unfair description of our public sphere. The appetite for the subjects I cover, from Ukraine to Iran, is large. But why read a book on Ukraine when you can watch a two-minute TikTok “explainer” on it? We still want the serious, but we want it to come packaged in trivial ways, which is far, far worse. Believe me, you can’t explain Ukraine in two minutes.

What Huxley got right was “man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction”. As Postman observed, when we think about propaganda we generally consider only two possibilities: that it might be true or it might be false. What has happened is something different: “the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant”. The truth is rarely concealed; it is lost amid trivia. We are not prisoners of the state, “but of our own endless desire for the superficial and inconsequential”.

Orwell wrote that if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. Well, almost 40 years on from Amusing Ourselves to Death, the picture of the future is here: imagine a human face, scrolling through a phone, its features settled into a contented spasticity — forever.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)