Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman

Books in Review, 2017 – Culture and Politics

This post is part of the series Books in Review 2017

Other posts in this series:

  1. Books in Review, 2017 – Business Tactics
  2. Books in Review, 2017 – Culture and Politics (Current)
  3. Books in Review, 2017 – Fiction

Today's focus is on books that relate to culture or politics. I chose a mix of older and newer books this year. As the first few books show, the problems of yesterday are the problems of today in a different form.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

I'm going to start strong with Tim Wu's history of advertising, from the earliest print advertising through the global markets of Internet last-minute ad placement. He demonstrates how the industry got started, who some of the major players were, and how it has progressed in tandem with technological growth, often leaping ahead to pull society forward.

Wu does not generally condemn or condone advertising, but shows how it has grown the economy and the spread of ideas. There are times that he shows the dark side of advertising style over substance, but in general the book is a levelheaded description of the inudstry that controls much of what we see, read, and hear.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

A good followup to The Attention Merchants would be Neil Postman's book about how popular culture has subsumed intellectual thought. The book was written over thirty years ago but is still being proven true today with regards to the power and sway that television and bit-sized culture has on thinking.

I am not a fan of the idea that all TV is bad and that all of our devotion to external culture leads to moral and intellectual decay. Comparisons are often made to how learned people of the past were because they didn't have pop stars and celebrity gossip to occupy them, but I believe that to be false. We are more educated than we have ever been. An interest in the goings on of others, while not always (but often can be) helpful or useful, does not preclude the ability to hold deep thoughts.

There could be a trap here if you describe all entertainment as intellectually empty. I am a fan of edutainment myself, filling up podcast and Youtube queues with videos that describe how the world works, often in amusing ways. Still, I don't regret listening and learning, even if Postman might describe it as a slipping of discourse.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (audiobook)

This was a quick, straightforward listen. Timothy Snyder does not pull punches, directly comparing the lessons from 20th century dictators to the actions of Donald Trump today. The book offers suggestions on how to participate in society and how to respond to external stimuli as you are dealing with potentially dictatorial and tyrannical behavior.

If you believe that you need to steel yourself against a slide into dictatorship, which doesn't often feel far away for me these days, this is a set of lessons to guide your thoughts and actions.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (audiobook)

Yuval Noah Harari deserves all of the acclaim that his writing gets. Sapiens moves through the history of hominids, through modern day human biology, physiology, anthropology, and culture. He exposes not just the evolutionary advancements that we've made, but also the cultural ones. The histories of commerce, finance, literacy, and more are tied into our growth as a species, and Harari does a good job of drawing clear lines across history.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time

This is where the suggestion for the aforementioned On Tyranny came from. Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC's On the Media, writes about the bifurcation of American society into right and left ideologies, with little room left for overlap.

But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (audiobook)

I always find Chuck Klosterman's writing to be hit or miss. As his books are mainly essays, that is alright as I can move from one to another with varying quality. This book was written more as a single narrative, with a focus on why we always assume that we are at the end of history and that questions asked ages ago are always settled.

It's true that we should question first order assumptions to confirm that what we base our second and third order assumptions on are built on firm ground. I can't say that I was highly entertained by Klosterman's look back and implied assumption that all of what we believe now will also become false in the future.

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

This is an earlier book by Gabriella Coleman, author of another book that I would highly suggest, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. This is an earlier book that was written more as an anthropological study than a narrative, so it reads a bit dryer than her more story focused followups. The focus was mainly on the Debian community and Defcon, two things that I have little experience with.

If you have interest in the culture and personalities of Free and Open Source Software, along with a basic history of how they have clashed with closed source software makers, this is a good primer, but more technical in nature.

Minimalism: Essential Essays

The Minimalists have become famous for preaching simplicity in all things. At this point it is nearly a cult in terms of devotion to reduction of clutter in all forms. While I never intend on being the person who owns fewer than 50 total items or whatever metric ultra-minimalists are using now, unless something dramatic happens in my life, the mindset that they engender is a good one for focusing on what is important.

A Spy's Guide to Thinking

If you have Amazon Prime, this one is a free read. It was also a quick read and not necessarily to be taken fully at face value. John Braddock walks you through a robbery that he was the victim of, and how he handled the situation. There is nothing wrong with the lessons contained within, which are mainly about staying aware of your surroundings and keeping your thoughts tuned to how to keep situations from spiraling out of control.

My book links above are Amazon affiliate links. If you want to read any of these books, I wouldn't mind if you used my link 😄

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