Twenty-five years ago, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a short book about what television is doing to us. In short, this professor of communication arts and sciences worried that television has had a devastating effect on serious social discourse, politics, religion, sports, education, news, and commerce. The author argued that each of these enterprises has been transformed by our insatiable thirst for amusement. He lamented that the medium of typography—the written word—had given way to the medium of television. Typography encourages rationality and analysis; the reader engages in critical thinking. A society that reads is a society marked by coherence and dialogue; it is a society that interacts with ideas. But a video society, Postman suggested, encourages passivity and receptivity at the same time that it exalts the trivial and exults in the banal. One of Postman’s most salient sentences in his book is this: When a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture death is a clear possibility.
Those insights were written in 1985. Postman’s worry about television almost seems quaint today. In the intervening two and a half decades, we have seen the development of all things digital. Not only do our television sets come equipped with 900 channels, but it seems that all of life is governed by dazzling media that is prone to entertain. When Postman wrote his essay, we didn’t have in our vocabulary iPod andHDTV. We didn’t surf the net, order online, or Tivo. We didn’t know what a DVD was, and Twitter was a bad note played on a trumpet. Blogging hadn’t been thought of, the word Facebook would have suggested a photo directory, and email was a thing of the future. When we had a conversation in 1985, our friends actually listened to what we were saying without constantly being interrupted by text messages and phone calls. Cell phones, in fact, were for Dick Tracy and the few wealthy people willing to pay a fortune to call their broker in New York to see how the portfolio was doing.
But that was then… and this is now. Digital communication has invaded every waking moment. Again, much of our vocabulary would have been indecipherable to Neil Postman in 1985. We watch movies on ouriPhones, text during our college courses, and tweet trivia to whoever will follow our daily activities. Laptoprefers to a device that we take with us because we can’t stand the thought of leaving our PC at home, and now the very cool iPad makes entertainment even more portable and ubiquitous. Perhaps something has been gained since Postman wrote his prophetic warning. We can download books onto our Kindle and listen to sermons and lectures while driving in our car. We can keep up with friends on the other side of the globe with a few clicks of a mouse. But are we amusing ourselves to death?
Indeed, digital technology has produced a world of wonder. I’ve received emails from people sitting on a ski-lift at Mammoth, and I’ve made reservations for a room 9,000 miles away without any long-distance charges to my telephone bill. With the internet I can check the weather in Cape Town and see how the surf is in Indonesia. My iPod carries as much information as a small library, and my home phone “remembers” the last 100 people who have called me just in case I want to call them back. But this digital world of wonder comes with a price.
First, our connectivity carries with it the danger that our relationships will become flimsy, thin, and shallow. My friends on Facebook compete for the time I can spend with real flesh-and-blood friends in Santa Barbara. Every YouTube video I watch competes with a conversation, and every blog I read takes the place of a more carefully written book.
Second, digital devices promote idolatry. I will make a prediction for 2011: Google or Microsoft or Apple will introduce a new product in the coming year of which you have heretofore not heard and which thereafter you will not be able to live without. In the coming year there will be some must-have thingamajig that will demand your time and your treasure. Yes, this dazzling world of digital technology entices us to worship created things rather than God. As social critic Jacques Ellul noted, It is not technology itself which enslaves us, but the transfer of the sacred into technology.
Third, digital technology takes up as much time as it saves. My life is full of time-saving devices that my grandparents couldn’t have imagined, yet I am far busier than they were. Technology and technological gadgets are increasingly viewed as Messiah! We convince ourselves that these devices really will save us. At least they will save us time and—we as a society have convinced ourselves—they really will make our lives better. But, in fact, they merely make our pace of life more frenetic.
Fourth, amusing ourselves to death is not good for our brain. A recent New York Times article by Matt Richtel shows that the research is increasingly conclusive: constant multitasking breaks down our ability to focus. This is especially true for young people whose brains are still developing. Neuroscientists are discovering that multitasking has a lingering effect. One Stanford scientist says, The scary part… is, they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.
Most important, amusing ourselves to death impedes our relationship with God. Discipleship is something that takes place over a lifetime. We plod along in the Christian life and fall in love with God very gradually. We grow gradually in our faith, our confidence, and our trust in our heavenly Father. The world of instant digital gratification teaches us that if a reward doesn’t come immediately, it must not be worth the long pursuit.
So what are we to do twenty-five years after Neil Postman? I offer three modest challenges:
Dare to disconnect. I mean it. Disconnect. Take a Sabbath from email, Facebook, your cell phone, and all things digital. Don’t take your cell phone to homegroup or to Sunday services! Don’t text during the Lord’s Supper or one of my sermons. Go to bed without that last check of your email. You will still have friends and relationships when your digital Sabbath is over, you will still have your job, and your soul will be the better for your disconnecting.
Dare to have digital-free devotions. Don’t check your email or phone messages; don’t turn on your computer. Seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal said, All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room. Dare to do just that. Sit still, open God’s Word (a version with real ink printed on real paper), read, meditate, and pray. Afterward check your email and messages.
Dare to converse. I mean this too. When you meet with a friend… talk. Leave your phone in the car or turn it off. Have a conversation without interruption. Listen, laugh, interact. You might be surprised by how delightful this is.
In the end, we need to know that we are made to connect with God, not with machines. Yes, the tools of modern technology are wonderful, they make our lives easier in many ways, and they thrill our senses. But we should use these tools with caution lest they take from us more than they give to us. As we move into a new year, let us beware lest we amuse ourselves to death.