of "Amusing Ourselves to Death"
from Os Guinness' Fit Bodies, Fat Minds
In the section of Os Guinness’s book Fit Bodies,
Fat Minds entitled “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Guinness
is concerned with the pervading influence of television on the American
mind. The problems he finds inherent in television are summed up in the
statement: “Television’s real potency…is its blending
of instancy and image. Television’s real problem, however, is that
through this blending entertainment becomes the master-style of television…the
deepest problem is not the mindlessness of television, but how television
transforms even the life of the mind into entertainment.” Before
this, Guinness has outlined the shift from the Age of Exposition to the
Age of Entertainment, the shift from interest in ideas and intellect to
images and commercialism.
Guinness points to five biases that television has against
true thinking. First, a bias against understanding. It is simply too fast-moving,
simplistic, and lacking in context to promote understanding. Second, a
bias against responsibility. Discontinuity and commercial breaks keep
viewers from needing to ponder the implications of what they have seen.
Third, a bias against memory and history. The emphasis is on the now,
and the then is not important. Fourth, a bias against rationality. Programs
are more about image and style than substance. Taking time to think through
answers is less interesting than keeping up with the established pace,
and thus is not encouraged. Fifth, a bias against truth and accuracy.
Again, image is more important than truth. It is more important to present
information well than to have accurate information.
He largely uses the logos means of persuasion,
liberally peppering his text with quotes from writers who have done work
in the field of television studies, newsmen, journalists, and even film
directors. His argument is very straight-forward and linear. He is also
relying on his own observation, even though he doesn’t come right
out and say “this is what I have personally observed”; it
is clear that he has watched enough television to know what it shows.
Pathos is hardly in the picture at all…which is appropriate,
because he is in the process of condemning a medium that he states appeals
largely to emotion rather than critical thinking.
In general, I think Guinness has a valid point. Television
can be mind-numbing, and provide little in the way of intellectual fodder.
In looking at the 18th century, he states that “speakers and writers
could always assume a serious attention span, a remarkable comprehension
level, considerable sophistication concerning the world and history, and
a relatively rigorous style of argument.” This we certainly no longer
have, as a culture. I can state from personal experience, that my attention
span is often about fifteen minutes long—the amount of time between
commercial breaks. At twenty minutes, I am getting anxious for the break.
And I know that I can attribute this to television. Guinness’s biases
do exist, and do influence unwary watchers.
I did notice that Guinness seems to concentrate only on
news or purely informational types of television programs, and even more
narrowly, on broadcast television that has advertising as its sole source
of revenue. I would like to hear what he has to say concerning fiction
programming, or cable stations (the History Channel, for example, which
fosters knowledge of and care for history and the world rather than discouraging
it). Certain fiction programs can be highly valuable, I believe, in fostering
critical thinking about large issues. Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
for example, despite the silly title and questionable premise, confronts
many of the issues of growing up in a way that has many high-level academics
writing thesis papers and critical books about it. I spend more time discussing
the show than watching it, as do many people who frequent internet community
posting boards and listserves like Buffyology,
dedicated to the academic study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I feel it is unfair to dismiss television so quickly without taking shows
like this into consideration. In Guinness’s defence, neither the
History Channel nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer were in existence
when he wrote Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, but the fact remains that
he does not even attempt to discuss fictional works (I believe Seinfeld
was airing in 1994, yes?), which is what the majority of young people,
at least, watch.
It is also interesting to me that he quotes Federico Fellini
in his diatribe against television, when Fellini himself was a producer
of “image” as a film director. And besides this, Fellini’s
films are preoccupied with using images to get ideas across instead of
words. Many of his films rely on atmosphere and tone rather than any clear
and understandable text. Some films, like Amarcord and Roma
have no real discernable meaning at all, but are rather autobiographical,
merely showing what growing up in Italy was like with no purpose beyond
that. Amarcord in particular relies on pathos and emotion almost
entirely for its appeal, the very things that Guinness denounces throughout
I do not remember television in 1994, but I am becoming
more and more convinced that today, television can be at least as much,
if not more insightful than films. Yet Guinness does not specifically
deal with films at all…they would be contained in his chapter on
images, I suppose, because of the visual emphasis of films, but he appears
not to have anything particular against them. I would agree that television
is more pervasive that films, and more seductive because we don’t
think about how it is affecting us as much. But I would not go as far
as Guinness does in denouncing television. I think he failed to cover
all aspects of it and allow for the good programming that does occur.
That said, his five biases are well taken, and need to be considered when
Guinness is most definitely an absolutist. He longs for
truth to be proclaimed, discussed, and recognized. No one but an absolutist
believes that truth can be known in this way. He is not suggesting that
we discuss our different viewpoints, or look at the different perspectives
or perceptions that we have. He says: “‘Is it true?’
has been overshadowed by ‘Was it compelling/sincere/entertaining/charismatic?’”
This is an appeal to find real truth, and to not give in to appearances,
I had already been considering my own relationship to television
when I read this chapter, especially such things as recognizing when it’s
time for a commercial break, actually desiring the commercial break, splitting
movies up into twenty minute segments as I’m watching them on video
because that’s how long a section should be, and things like that.
Guinness has further reminded me to be careful of how I view television
and put me on my guard to remember these five biases that television in
general has. I agree that these exist, but I don’t believe that
they are reason enough to get rid of television. Anything can be viewed
wrongly, and everything takes discernment to pull the good from the bad.
Television is an excellent arena for practicing discernment, simply because
it is so diverse.
This paper originated as an assignment for World Citizen, Missouri
Baptist University, Spring, 2003.
©2003 by Jandy Stone