Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death is about the negative effects of television on public discourse. Postman’s central claim is that television has turned what was formerly serious discourse into entertainment. The problem is not simply the existence of pointless entertainment on TV, but that pointless entertainment has stepped out of its lane, into the lane of serious discussion. This has moved society closer to Huxley’s vision of suppression by our own excess in Brave New World, rather than Orwell’s vision of suppression by blatant government intervention in 1984. While not written for the modern internet age, the ideas in Postman’s book strongly relate to current online religious discourse, which is impacting the church today.
Postman and the “Meta-Medium”
When Postman was writing in 1985, computers were beginning to emerge, but the internet as we know it today was not yet created. However, many of Postman’s points about TV are even more appropriate for the internet. Reflecting on the society around him, Postman referred to TV as the “meta-medium,” it was the center for all media. People learned which movies or shows to watch, books to read, and music to listen to through the TV. In our day, the internet has taken over that role as the center of all other media. When the TV had a central role in culture, that which was on it was basically taken as true. The internet has now taken over the central cultural status.
However, TV as a “meta-medium” was more than just finding out about other media to consume. It also created a level of cultural homogeneity. Postman theorized that TV directed our knowledge about the world and how we know about the world. Since TV was controlled by network executives that need to appeal to wide audiences for advertising, the information and opinions allowable on TV were limited. Only certain things could be shown on TV, and most people consumed them. Much of society was watching the same shows and new programs as everyone else. As a result, TV became a cultural touchstone. Most everyone knew about what was on TV and didn’t know about what wasn’t on TV.
The Internet as the “Meta-Medium”
While the internet has assumed a similar cultural centrality, the diversity of content and communities on the internet has created serious changes for how it operates as the “meta-medium.” Now, with a legion of sub-cultures, anyone can find a home on the internet. From innocent online communities of college classmates to radical anarchist groups. While everyone flocks to the internet, not everyone is arriving in the same place or taking part in the same culture. Unlike TV in the 1980s, just because everyone is going online does not mean they are all consuming the same things. Instead, the internet contains a legion of various sub-cultures which was not possible in the TV-dominated era.
While you might think that the rise of information available on the internet has made people more interested in other ideas, I would beg to differ. In a way, the TV may have been the better “meta-medium” because most people who watched would have been given the same information. But the internet has shattered this shared consensus which once resulted in homogeneity across the culture and has now created numerous subcultures. This is problematic because much of the information within one subculture is hostile to other groups.
A largely Republican Facebook group may post about how the 2020 election was stolen, citing the evidence in their favor. At the same time, a Democratic group bashes this idea while claiming the evidence to be clearly in their favor. Each side claims different data as true and then draws conclusions from that data. When someone spends time in one of these two subcultures, their opinions are not challenged but only confirmed. Of course, everyone knows you can’t believe everything on the internet. But this modern-day proverb doesn’t tell us what we can believe on the internet.
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Christian Community Through the “Meta-Medium”
When it comes to religious discourse, Postman feared that TV had become infected with the entertainment virus. His central claim was that TV had turned everything into a form of entertainment, religious programs were not an exception. Postman gives a lot of attention to televangelists, who, he thinks, have been more concerned with their own worship, rather than God’s. Additionally, religious TV cannot create a sacred space in the way church can. When we worship God at church, we collectively draw our attention to Him, taking ourselves out of the monotony of the week and humbly go before God. We may build an ornate building or simply display the elements of the Lord’s Supper. However, with TV, this is impossible. Since we also get our entertainment from the TV, we struggle to be before God by simply changing the channel to a religious program.
Postman’s underlying ideas remain true for the church today. The danger of the meta-medium and the spread of entertainment into serious discourse are even more dangerous today. Once, the meta-medium (the TV) was confined to a room or two in a house. But with the proliferation of computers, phones, and tablets the internet’s dominion is as wide as ever. The interface of the internet is always with us. Sure, we can use our computers and phones for reading our Bibles, but can we then turn around and use those same devices for entertainment. Can we really deeply contemplate God when we close a funny YouTube video to open up our Bible app, only then to be interrupted by a text?
Many felt this dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. After just a few weeks, it became nearly impossible to focus church over Zoom. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Can we really attend church through the same machine we use to email our bosses, watch cat videos, and play video games? Not really.
This is also true of our religious and theological discourse. The different subcultures on the internet are just as dangerous for many religious groups. There are numerous groups of different denominations or theological orientations online. This moves theological discussion outside of its proper area, the church, to the internet. In one group, it may be popular to bash Calvinism with no real Calvinist in the group to define the position, and in another, it is fine to bash Arminianism with no one to defend that position either. Within these groups, serious discussion rarely takes place. Instead, simple talking points are regurgitated against those not in the group.
Going forward, the question is not whether or not Christians should use TV or the internet. Rather, the question is “why are we using them?” and “how should we use them?” Sometimes our hands are forced, like they were during the pandemic, which is fortunately not the norm. We must be realistic about what the internet can do and typically gives rise to. It may not be bad to post lectures online like Lanier Theological Library and Emmaus do. But when we do create and post content, we need to remember the purpose of that content and its limits. Religious content is not to be entertaining but to transform our lives into the image of Christ and new creation.