in design, writing

Amusing Ourselves to Death

“The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.”

Marshall McLuhan

I’ve plunged head-first into Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While it’s far too early to glean any sort of revelation from the book, it’s easy to read the tea leaves of a great thinker, a prescient storyteller, and a prophetic educator.

The zenith of his first argument teeters from McLuhan’s quote above, intersecting with Native American smoke signals as an uncomplicated form of communication. Smoke cotton-balls ballooning into the sky could not contain sophisticated philosophies or debate; only raw, simple information.

It’s fascinating how similar network access is to that simple act, exchanging smoke for transluscent blossoms of radiation to convey our thoughts. We are, all of us, igniting the atmosphere with our collective rumination, tattooing the invisible skin of the world with fire.

UPDATE: No one wants a great book to end.

The main argument Postman makes is: communication through imagery is a poor replacement, both socially and culturally, for communicating through typography. He positions various points to defend this hypothesis throughout the book, from televangelism to photography to politics. His arguments are insightful, carefully deconstructing purpose to expose intent. 

The challenge is that it’s hard to trust words these days. The vast majority of communication legwork is handled nonverbally. There is a reason that publishing photos through Instagram or Facebook is so popular — photos tell the story quickly and efficiently. A few clicks and you’re done as opposed to constructing icon after icon composing word after word to form a sentence to craft a coherent thought or story.

Sadly, we are trading craft for convenience.