My thoughts on Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

A popular quote that we use in Software Engineering goes like this:

If everything you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This is known as the The law of the instrument and means that a limited toolset can get the job done but there will be a price to pay in quality or productivity. Looking back at my own experience, it reminded me when I took two hours to create a Java program that would have taken 30 seconds to write as a sed command. In ten more years, I will probably look the same way at blind spot I have today.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman looks at the law of the instrument when applied to our public discourse. More specifically when we moved the public discourse from books to TV, or as he called it our transition from the age of typography to the age of show-business. I didn't expect a 35 years old book on TV to touch me as much as this book did. My mind went in many directions and so does this text.

Public discourse in the age of show business

Pure democracy doesn't scale. We can't have everyone vote on all decisions in a large city, a state or a country. Many countries thus live in a republic where elected representatives defend the common good. Public discourse is what allows us to voice our opinions and concerns for elected representatives to ponder. In Ideal of Public Discourses, Sellers defines it as:

Speeches, publications and other statements made in the pursuit of the public good. If (as it is for republicans) the sole aim of government, laws and the state is to serve the common good of the people, then public discourse offers the primary practical techniques for finding (or clarifying) what the laws should require.

Given that a country is made of people with different interests and opinions, the ideal public discourse should be centered around reasoned arguments. Postman's main premise is that books are fertile grounds for reasoned arguments while television (and he would probably include social media if he had written his book 30 years later) is more effective for entertainment. The consequence is that public discourses now focuses on what makes people feel good about themselves instead of making them thinking about the kind of society they want to build.

I won't expand too much on this line of thoughts because I wouldn't render justice to Postman's work. I highly encourage readers to go to the book for the full argument. I will instead spend time on describing the things this book made me re-evaluate.

A false sense of knowledge

I always thought that I watched and read the news to stay informed, and by extension to become a better citizen. I now realize that most of my news consumption was centered around trivia information, information with limited context that won't change the decisions I make in my life. After reading this book, I realized that my news consumption was more for entertainment than anything else.

In the last few months, I started being more intentional on my information consumption by asking myself the following questions when reading, listening or watching content:

  • Will this information help me make better decisions or become a better person?
  • Will this information nourish one of my hobby?
  • Should I be doing something else?

In the end, I want to consume information that will help me make better decisions. And I don't want to disguise entertainment as something else. To do so, I started to read more books and to write down my thoughts once I am done to consolidate my learnings (hence this post).

Signal and noise

Continuous news, social networks, and newspaper all bring information faster than a book on the same subject would. This however comes at a price:

  • Signal to noise is low. It takes efforts to weed out useless or non-reliable information, making it difficult to focus on what is important.

  • We are full of biases. It is difficult for us to change our first impressions. Unreliable information that we gather quickly is difficult to correct with more reliable information coming out later.

These two disadvantages together means that being informed faster does not mean being informed better. Unless the information is needed for time critical decisions, it is probably a better use of our time to wait until we are confident the information is actionable before spending time on it.

In the workplace

While I knew that PowerPoint presentation were frowned upon at Amazon and the NASA, this book made me question to what extent the law of the instrument shape the information that is circulating in my workplace. Or in other word, how the medium shape the information it can convey.

Here is where I converged naturally when sharing information with co-workers:

  • Decisions are made in meetings with all stakeholders and the outcome is publicly documented (i.e. not buried in my mailbox). This allows stakeholders to review the decision one last time and detect misalignments. Making it public also create useful context for new people onboarding on a project (and people that need to be reminded of their action items).

  • Software designs are shared in documents that are reviewed asynchronously by peers. When reviewers raise issues that are difficult to solve asynchronously, we meet and discuss in person to quickly get a resolution.

  • Recurrent 1 on 1 are good to stay connected and get feedback on early ideas.

  • I have a love-hate relationship with corporate wikis. I like that they make the bar of entry to contribute information very low, but I hate that they make the exit criteria low (incomplete and abandoned wiki pages are okay because we can always improve it later).

This is by no means an extensive framework, but the book made me think more about its importance.

The law of the instrument is also a great way to look at diversity in the workplace. The more heterogeneous a group, the more tools it collectively possesses to make informed decisions.

Wrapping up

My biggest realization when reading Amusing Ourselves to Death was that the medium shapes the information we consume and the way we think. While I don't have a comprehensive framework to make better choices, I will keep it in mind when consuming and producing information.

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