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.
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.