If you haven’t read, or revisited, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman’s 1985 classic, we suggest you check it out. At just 184 pages, this brief analysis is as powerful today as it was 35 years ago. And it’s relevant to our work as market researchers.

The book expands on ideas introduced by Marshall McCluhan in The Medium Is the Message. Postman explores the shift in our thinking and our values as we’ve moved from a typographic culture, introduced in the mid-15th century with the printing press, to the image-based culture that took root in 19th century with photography and has been going full-steam ever since. 

In The Context Of No Context

The book has become famous for its critique of television, but it’s much more than that. Amusing Ourselves to Death also examines the role that information overload plays in our understanding of the world, and in what we believe is true, relevant, and meaningful.

We’re all well aware of the glut of data that floods upon us every day. It might seem like a recent phenomenon, born of the web. But Postman locates its origin in the development of the telegraph. Beginning in the 1840s, for the first time in human history information was divorced from any larger context, reduced to a stream of data snippets. In turn there emerged concepts like “the news of the day,” trivia, and a phrase we hear endlessly in the media: “And now this…”

Decontextualized data points may be interesting, distracting, and, ultimalely amusing. But we pay a huge price, says Postman. With information glut comes a loss of meaning, one that has only deepened as the stream of data snippets originating in 1840 has grown into a raging river.

It is our job to provide the context.

Market Research Is In The Business Of Meaning

Market researchers would be well served to muse upon Postman’s insight. We may think, after all, that we’re in the data business. We collect and tabulate data. We seek out new data categories and streams. We find ways to accumulate more and more, ever faster and more efficiently.

But it’s better to think of ourselves in the meaning business. Our ability to sift the data, to judge what’s important and what’s less important and to organize the salient bits into a rational, linear story – to provide a meaningful context that helps clients feel confident in what’s true and act upon that truth – that’s where our real value lies.

Unless we approach our profession with meaning as the ultimate aim, we run the risk of reporting nothing more than a series of data snippets. We might call them “insights,” but all too often they’re just lists, with each item only nominally or tangentially relating to what precedes or follows.

Our reports may be visually brilliant. Our videos may employ the hippest effects. We may be charming and entertaining presenters. Yet, we can still fall into the meaning-eroding mode that Postman identifies if we simply move from bullet point to bullet point, or slide to slide, or frame to frame and say nothing more than “And now this…”

At RTi, we make meaning our focus. And as 2020 begins, we think you should too. We’ve even got an online course “From Data to Meaning” which can help get you started. It’s substantive, clear and even, at times, amusing.

Happy New Year. 

Check out “From Data To Meaning,” our acclaimed online storytelling course for market researchers