Modern Culture and Deadly Entertainment

When Neil Postman wrote his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he may not have known just how literal his warnings would prove to be. For those unfamiliar with this landmark book, it was about how the electronic media, especially television, was transforming our culture.

Postman warned that television was dumbing down everything in its reach, and that it was turning all public life into mere entertainment. He argued that there is no such thing as ‘serious television,’ and that this shift could well lead to our ruin.

Of course he wrote this incisive warning well before the age of the Internet, texting, Twitter, iPads, DVDs, mobile phones, cable and satellite TV, Facebook, plasma screens, and so many other new high-tech revolutions in communications and entertainment.

Image of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Postman, Neil (Author), Postman, Andrew (Introduction) Amazon logo

Thus if things were bad then, how much worse are they today? How will such a fundamental revolution in the way we live, communicate and amuse ourselves affect us? Plenty of scholarly studies have already been penned on the impact of all this, including the potentially negative and damaging impact it can and does have.

Postman was quite right to say that we are now amusing ourselves to death. If it is not our own death, it is someone else’s. A recent headline which appeared in the world’s press is a potent – and ghastly – example of all this. Here is one version of the headline: “US woman admits shaking baby to death over Facebook game”.

Here is how the story is reported: “A Florida woman, angry because her baby’s crying was interrupting her game of Farmville on Facebook, has pleaded guilty to murder after shaking the infant to death, a US newspaper has reported. Alexandra Tobias, 22, of Jacksonville, entered the plea in the January death of three-month-old Dylan Lee Edmondson before Circuit Judge Adrian Soud this week, the Florida Times-Union said.”

“Tobias could face up to life in prison. The newspaper said a sentencing hearing has been scheduled for December. The Times-Union said Tobias told investigators she became angry because her baby was crying while she was playing Zynga’s FarmVille. She said she shook the baby, smoked a cigarette, and then shook him again and that the infant may have hit his head during the shaking.”

One hardly can come up with words to describe this shocking crime. The very person who is meant to be the most special, most caring, most protective and most loving person to a new-born baby instead becomes its executioner – all because the baby interrupted her addiction to a stupid Facebook game.

But tragically this case is not unique. It is certainly not the first such case, nor will it be the last. Consider this story which appeared in the media earlier this year. The headline is just as shocking and mind-numbing as the other one: “Gamers’ tot ‘dies of starvation’.”

Here is how the story ran: “A couple addicted to computer games let their real life baby starve to death while raising a virtual daughter online, cops said today. The couple spent up to12 hours a day at internet cafes leaving their three-month-old daughter home alone at their apartment in Suwon, South Korea.

“Cops say the couple had become obsessed with living online and neglected their real lives. They raised an avatar baby through their profiles on a Second Life-style game called PRIUS, while their real daughter was given just one bottle of milk a day.”

The story continues, “Dad Kim Yoo-chul, 41, and mum Choi Mi-sun, 25, called the emergency services when they returned from one online session and found their daughter dead. They told police: ‘We found she had passed away when we woke up in the morning.’

“But cops became suspicious about how severely dehydrated the tot was. A spokesman for the National Scientific Criminal and Investigation Laboratory, which carried out an autopsy on the girl, said: ‘She appears to have starved to death because she was not fed for such a long period of time’.”

The conclusion to the news report does not get any better: “Online games are massively popular in South Korea. A 28-year-old man dropped dead recently after playing his favourite game Starcraft for 50 hours non-stop without eating and drinking.”

Neil Postman died in 2003. Thus he did not live to see these tragic stories played out. But they would not have surprised him. Indeed, they simply confirm what he was saying all along. Such horrific cases can only get worse, as all of Western culture continues to move in this direction.

Perhaps I can conclude by quoting what Postman wrote in the beginning of his book. They are important words which apply to us even more than they did a quarter century ago. He writes about the two dystopian novelists, George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and how their works of fiction so powerfully predicted where we would be heading:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

“As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

Quite so. We are awash in an entertainment culture. It is everywhere, even in our churches (and Postman even has a chapter in his book dealing with this as well). This culture of amusement and diversion is literally killing us. It certainly is robbing us of what is important, what is vital, what is eternal.

Please Lord, send us more prophets to warn us about this – even secular prophets like Postman.

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15 Replies to “Modern Culture and Deadly Entertainment”

  1. So Bill, having a mother and a father is not always ideal. It rather depends on the quality of the parents.
    Diana Mcinnes

  2. Thanks Diana

    But let me call your bluff (yet again). Not only are you way off topic, but your remarks are typical of the secular lefties who exploit tragic stories like these in order to score cheap points to push radical ideological agendas. And you didn’t score any points here. In fact, you lost points.

    You don’t even have your facts right. In neither story do we know anything about the parents. There isn’t even mention made of a father in the first case, so she may well be a single mum. And in neither case are we informed of the marital status – or otherwise – of the parents. We simply read of a “couple” in the second story, which could easily be a de facto couple. Indeed, in both stories we are not even certain if the infants were the biological children of the adults in question. So you don’t have a leg to stand on here.

    But this is what we do know with absolute clarity and assurance: The social science research is complete clear that children fare best – as assessed by every key social indicator – when they are raised by their own biological parents, preferably cemented by marriage. This of course does not mean that every single married two-parent family is guaranteed to always raise their kids perfectly. It simply means the many thousands of studies on these matters show quite conclusively that if you want the best outcome for your kids, make sure they are raised by their own married biological parents.

    Cases of child abuse and neglect will be much more likely in households which do not feature a married mother and father. That is the simple evidence consistently demonstrated now for some five decades. If these facts get in the way of your radical ideology, I can understand why they bother you so. But the truth remains, regardless of your sour grapes.

    Sorry, but you fail (big time) and must go to the back of the class (again).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Diana’s argument reminds me of the one used by pro-choice women in justifying abortion. “Because a miscarriage sometimes occurs naturally, it is therefore perfectly OK to procure a termination.”
    Dunstan Hartley

  4. Thanks Bill once again

    Its true what you say, im currently going through a stage with my 2 children 7 and 9. My partner and i realised our children had too many toys. And, not to mention, i see it every where children with way too many toys. My daughter had 12 dolls 8 teddys leggo rollar skates bikes hops nets and then the computer games. We decided 3 things is enough. Yes well there was some crying but there has been a improvement in there ability to appreciate the simple things.
    Daniel Kempton

  5. Thanks Dunstan

    Yes quite right – a typical logical fallacy from the secular left. She is here saying that since there may be less than ideal parenting in married two-parent families (which I showed was something we just don’t even know is the case in these two situations) then any and all parenting is just fine, including same-sex households and other “family” structures where one or more strangers are raising the kids. It’s the old faulty two wrongs make a right argument.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Postman’s thesis is profoundly challenging and helpful.

    A more recent media analysis also worth reading is Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.”

    Whislt also a secular analyst like Postman, Carr’s thesis needs to be reflected upon by Christians. Obviously, we don’t want to become Luddites. But Carr persuasively argues that the ubiquity of the Internet is literally changing how our brain works, so that it is becoming increasingly difficult for some to concentrate at length and think deeply. And more than ever, Christians need to think Biblically about how to live in this rapidly changing world.

    Well worth the time to read, Bill, and keep up the great work.

    David French

  7. The excellent parenting expert John Rosemond has convinced me to keep my daughter at great lengths from tv as she grows up. He believes it inhibits their ability to pay attention and may be a significant cause of ADHD in children today.

    Yes. I believe TV and computers rewire the brain in ways that aren’t positive.

    Damien Spillane

  8. Lets drown out the Holy way! Almighty God will penetrate… no matter what! Let’s pray. Dear Lord, help us to turn off and tune in to you and only you every day!
    Jane Byrne

  9. Postman is “spot on” on Bill, this is something I have become increasingly concerned about over the years. I am dismayed by what the media now considers news and often the most trivial events are “headlined” in a broadcast whilst the real issues are buried or worse still, not even reported. The internet and associated technologies are changing the way we live at an ever increasing pace and this is particularly of concern where parents have no control (or idea) of what their children are exposed to. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle so we have to engage the enemy on the same battleground. Pro-life Victoria have just released a fantastic video on YouTube called “A Story about Life”, just in time for the forthcoming State Election. Please encourage all like minded individuals to distribute this as widely as possible. The link is (long version).
    Peter Coventry

  10. Hi Bill, some useful themes there – and certainly the end was most telling where you said: “It certainly is robbing us of what is important, what is vital, what is eternal”.

    I was wondering if you would care to comment further on how these trends are robbing us (Christians in particular) of what is important, vital and eternal in a more practical sense? – as your article focuses mostly on the extreme cases where it has actually killed people. I just thought it might be more helpful to here your comments on what you see as the ways in which this stuff is hitting our spiritual vitality and health in more mundane ways.

    I suppose the obvious one for me is that we (I) often spend more time on these things (e.g. facebook) than we do in prayer, learning in the faith through the word and good books, and fellowship. And to our shame, do we find ourselves more keen about movies/games/internet/etc. than we do about growing in our faith?

    I know there are times when it does seem like a chore to exercise myself in godliness – and more desirable to chill out with some of those other things to enjoy. Surely this is not what the Lord had in mind when we are instructed to ‘delight ourselves in God alone’ (ps 37).

    I have found John Piper’s book ‘Desiring God’ to be a good stimulation for pondering how we can grow in our desire of God – which is really the key to casting off the sin that so easily entangles us. I think this is what the Lord was talking about when He said “You can do nothing without me, I am the vine, you are the branches…”.

    Blessings, Isaac Overton, ACT

  11. Great article Bill – it makes me think of ACA on Channel 9 and Today Tonight on Channel 7; I can remember when Jana Wendt & Mike Willisee had really good stories that affect us or made us think about our society and how it works. Sadly now you get diets, fashion and wheres the cheap goodies on both 9 & 7 now. But the producers would say that they are only giving the punters what they want. But the ABC does have the 7:30 report, but it is a Leftist Apologia, so unbalanced that if it was a car it would always drive off left into a telegraph pole in the first 100 metres! I like the use of the words that are so true – distractions, disruptions & dumbing down, a sign of the times – can we decline further? It is inevitable without a revived Christian Church!
    Neil Innes

  12. The only way to properly assess a TV news or current affairs show is to compare its content against the societal issues the Bible says are important: abortion, persecution of Christians overseas, state of the church, growing legislative threats against Christianity etc. etc.

    Now if the TV program isn’t majoring on these issues then it’s not only wasting your time on trivia but also subtly reinforcing an anti-Biblical world-view, not primarily because each individual program is wrong or bad, but because of what is left out.

    Ask yourself when was the last time you saw ANY news story or documentary about the above issues, let alone these forming the staple of programming?

    That’s why I don’t watch any TV now. This was very difficult at first, but after six months or so I was freed from any urge to watch it. And it was only then that I could see what an addiction it was, and how the constant repetition of worldly trivia really does weaken one’s Biblical world-view.

    Mansel Rogerson

  13. I agree with you Mansel, the less TV the better. I still watch some but am selective. I don’t want my mind full of garbage. The world is drowning in an ocean of information, very little of which has any true value.
    Of course I’m not referring to those areas of research and progress which truly benefit humanity.
    Anna Cook

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