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Las Vegas is the future of the West Neil Postman foresaw our trivial dystopia

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

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)

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Brilliant essay, from someone who’s gained the right to be read seriously.

Almost too much that can be dissected within it, but if i might take the single word “content” as used at the conclusion to express the human face as it scrolls and browses. What does it browse? Why, ‘content’ of course. We’ve become endless over-producers of content. At least with Unherd, there’s a participatory element and we’re not here just to be amused, although sometimes Comments can develop into an amusing exchange in a very human way.

But in general, i try to blank out as much given content as possible; content such as adverts (ugh!), trailers, so-called comedians, cooking/baking trash, two-minute “explainers” (yes you, BBC) and so on. The author nails it, and i’d not heard of Postman. He needs to be revisited.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I agree. But I knew about Postman when he was writing back in the eighties. Apart from the effects of mass media on politics he is also very thought provoking about how it changes childhood. I think he was seen as a bit of a nervous nellie at the time, but with hindsight he reads like a prophet. Two things I remember well after forty years: he told of the day the laying of the first telegraph cable in the US led immediately to the two cities now linked carrying irrelevant news about each other’s comings and goings the next morning, and the way how in the fifties the rapid spread of TV tracked exactly with an explosion in the numbers of low level social crimes.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Those examples of effects following from the use of technology (or in the latter case, potential effects) are useful. Can you describe what is meant by “social crimes”?

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes very dystopian that the survivors of the Maui fires overwhelmingly after living in paradise pick hell or Las Vegas as the place they’d like to resettle ?

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I’m always nervous about blocking too-explicitly the ads that bomb me, and that also make possible the desired content (such as UnHerd), in fear that Someone is going to eventually say, “Looks like the ads are useless. Guess we’ll have to start charging for access!”.

Davey M
Davey M
9 months ago

It’s precisely because of our “own endless desire for the superficial and inconsequential” that we’ll end up as prisoners of the state. The state can do what it wants so long as we are all distracted (which is part of its strategy in the first place.)
The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Last edited 9 months ago by Davey M
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
9 months ago
Reply to  Davey M

Bread and circuses. Always works.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
9 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Or soma and centrifugal bumblepuppy.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
9 months ago

Postman was right: the prophet of the future was Huxley rather than Orwell. This tendency will to intensify in coming decades as new technology will allow fully rendered virtual reality, brain implants to stimulate dopamine production centre and probably an individualised form of soma generated by AI that is customised for individual genomes. These capabilities will be necessary because Artificial General Intelligence will eliminate the economic advantage of all human labour, probably within 3 decades, leaving a potentially disgruntled population on a universal basic income who will need to be distracted to keep order. This is the unstoppable future that is faced but at least there will be robot servants.

RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago

I’ve seen a couple of unpleasant places up close and personal – apartheid South Africa, the DDR – and the Orwellian paradigm applied better to them than did the Huxleyan. In soft old Europe, the reverse seems likely. So I wouldn’t discount either: both have their place in the world we’ve built.
To argue over which is the more “authentic” is really a false dichotomy. History and prevailing social and political mores determine which will prevail in a given country.
Excellent and provocative essay, though, and I enjoyed it greatly.

Last edited 9 months ago by RM Parker
Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago

As someone who has long viewed the world from the Huxleyian perspective, rather than the Orwellian, I would have confidently agreed with this analysis pre 2020.

However, perhaps it’s because we don’t possess the perfect drug Soma, of Huxley’s Brave New World, but for me the Orwellian State appears to be making a comeback, albeit in sheep’s clothing, for now.

Additionally, the perennial human need for belief in our increasingly secular age (remember the Savage in Brave New World?) seems to have thrown up a new, potentially catastrophic, pseudo religion or Doomsday cult, whichever you choose to call it.

RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

I wonder whether we typically face a chimera of the two paradigms: I often see aspects of both in operation, the blend varying according to geography and socio-political situation.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

I think the recently applied EU Digital Services Act is a pretty good demonstration of your Orwellian State in sheep’s clothing.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
9 months ago

“…any form of governance that comes adorned with jackboots — physical or metaphorical — will be resisted. Our self-image depends on it…”
The author apparently slept through the supine kneeling at the alter of Covid restrictions by so many in our supposedly freedom-loving culture.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
9 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

To be fair to the author, the supine kneeled not because of jack boots kicking them but because the telly box told them they should, and they unquestionably did. That is all it took: popular entertainment social pressure with a dash of fear piped into homes by TV cameras. A mix of both Orwell and Huxley’s dystopias.

Last edited 9 months ago by Nell Clover
Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I personally think it was something much more prosaic: the sun was shining, and people were told to stay at home and forego the drudgery of the day job.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
9 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Helpful advice is not blackboot nazism . A bit of a trauma queen are you !

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
9 months ago
Reply to  Mark M Breza

Helpful advice like police arresting people in public parks and churches and the government literally freezing anti-mandate protesters’ bank accounts?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
9 months ago

Excellent piece, although I’d take issue with the statement “Apart from anything else, we in the West are hardwired to reject overt signs of totalitarianism”. If the pandemic showed us anything, it’s surely that we in the West have lost the capacity to recognise and reject these overt signs of totalitarianism. On the contrary, the majority tends to plead for more.

RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Yes, that’s very true – and deeply worrying.

Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
9 months ago

The future will be the sound of a billion tired moans of the never-climaxing digital w**k.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

The medium is the message ?

Re the writer’s new book title; didn’t the British Army chiefs in Iraq state that one of the main probbies of communication with our US ‘allies ‘ was that they insisted all information be sent in the form of PowerPoint slides,
with the most complex security situations boiled down to a few bullet points?

* Very hot in desert
* Water in short supply
* Loadsa IEDs
* Heading South tonight
* Chat soon
* Luvulots

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Given the semi-desert conditions, would one of those slides have included:
*Camelots
??

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
9 months ago

Wonderful last paragraph!

Jackson Ramseur
Jackson Ramseur
9 months ago

the irony of reading this piece contentedly spaced out on my phone

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Just back from Serbia, so I feel improved by my visit to an authoritarian state.
The MiG29 looping the loop over the presidential palace was fun. The ethnic dancing I could have done without.
Useless and sinister is a great description of Corbyn. Ha!!
Remember being at some awful speech of Corbyn’s at a Labour Momentum do, in that brief period where the windscreen-licking faction thought he was going to save them. My phone starts vibrating. Fishing it out, I open Grindr to find JC’s former lover’s deranged son spamming me.
Cornered from all angles.

Last edited 9 months ago by Dumetrius
SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
9 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Recommend the tv channel travel XP Sky 182 which has several travel programmes on Serbia as part of their Backpack series.I used to visit my brother who lived in Palic on the Serbian Hungarian border for 6 years after the financial crisis.The Serbs i met were personally very generous people but also had racist altitudes .

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

Thank you, I’d like to see more of the place. I liked the Serbs as people too.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

Or as Juvenal put it so succinctly in the early 2nd century of the Christian era.*

“Ian pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli vendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat: PANEM et CIRCENSES.

OR:-

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions. everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: BREAD and CIRCUSES.

(* Juvenal: Satire X.)

Aisha Akhtar
Aisha Akhtar
9 months ago

Amusing ourselves to the death was the first nonfiction book I read and was instantly captivated. I recognised what Postman was talking about as we grew up without TV (of course no Internet/ computers then) – we got all that in our late teens. My father was just ideologically opposed to the television for which I am very thankful for now! I would never have read so many books as a child! This brilliant article is a reminder to go back and read that masterpiece

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
9 months ago

News from nowhere.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago

Reading this next to Panda La Terriere’s piece on the C40 Cities scheme is truly frightening. And I’m not easily frightened.
They have decades of practice in using our own base motivations against us. Most people I know have no objection. “As long as it’s air conditioned”

Last edited 9 months ago by laurence scaduto
RM Parker
RM Parker
9 months ago

Or as the Dead Kennedys satirically put it: “give me convenience or give me death”.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
9 months ago

My brother in law and I used to discuss how the West is really turning into a Disneyland of old stuff where the ‘new people’ whoever they were would come to visit and look at the old buildings and think themselves lucky in their new world… I think I missed out ‘Brave’. Thanks for the essay. Not a million miles away, sad to say. Glad I can still read.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago

The incredible scale, accessibility, and timeliness of information hasn’t hidden the truth. On the contrary—it has made it more accessible. A event like the Hunter Biden laptop story would have been a footnote in a history book that spoke authoritatively about it as a hoax employed by the Russians, were it to have occurred pre-internet age.

Humanity will always have a segment of the population who strive for more, and today’s technology will make that easier and will ensure their efforts are more immune than ever from the tentacles of authoritarianism.

As for the others who may not be so inclined to strive for more? Well, they’ve always amused themselves to death. Nothing is new about this other than that they now have the ability to gossip about a multitude of celebrities as well as the neighbours down the street. We can let them be.