There were many wonderful moments in the recent animated movie Wall-e, but the most resonant and unexpected scene was the first appearance by humans of the future. In Wall-e World, our race has evolved over centuries to resemble a gathering of vacant-eyed, super-sized manatees, or maybe sea lions, floating on reduced-gravity chaise-lounges, gabbing mindlessly into mobile phones, and continually supine unless sucking up giant beakers of Slurpee or receiving spa treatments from robots. These accepting, obtuse jello-molds are, in other words, an only slightly distorted depiction of our current selves.
The film offers a plausible version of how this metamorphosis might occur, but Neil Postman provided all the documentation anyone might need in his reissued study, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, Cdn$20/US$14.) Back in 1985, Postman expounded on how the emerging flood of video “info-tainment” would re-contour the minds of viewers, training the public to become ongoing consumers of random images of war, famine and other human calamities — and to view these events passively as amusements, while regarding staged entertainment as reality.
He put forth the notion, succinctly conveyed in the book’s title, that the consequence of this non-stop diet of image-consumption would be nothing less than to diminish the capacity for rational thought among viewers, resulting in the death of our culture. Postman predicted the blurring of lines between reality and imagery, and suggested that the outcome would be not the Global Village presaged by McLuhan, but rather a Global Insane Asylum, where inmates are trained to value the valueless, and to discard that which is enduring. His observation: “Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
Postman offered his views in advance of the “reality” TV programing and “audience-participation” vehicles — as well as technologies such as the Internet, HDTV, Slingbox, Blackberry, TiVO, YouTube, Xbox, video-on-demand, Sirius-XM satellite radio and others that, you’ll forgive me, I may have forgotten. (I blame these memory lapses on too much television, because it’s, ah, convenient.)
Two decades after his book was released, apparently Postman has rung twice. Everything he expressed 24 years ago in the form of his fears for the future has come to pass — and, yet, many of us, in our soulless, bedazzled state, preoccupied with the plots of “23-and-a-Half” and “CSI: Mimico,” will not have noticed that anything in our lives has changed, let alone changed for the worse. That, too, was his prediction. “When a people become an audience,” he wrote, “and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.”
Postman would not have been surprised that newspapers would remove their serious content in an effort to better compete with the electronic media, or that the levels of newspaper readership would plummet. He foresaw the emerging format of talk radio as two camps of ideologue perpetually chanting vitriolic slogans at each other. And he would not have been taken aback to know that it would take a cartoon such as Wall-e to offer enlightened discourse on the most meaningful subject of our age, which is the psychological, physical and environmental cost of unbridled hedonism.