Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary

Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary

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Written by educator and media theorist Neil Postman and published by Penguin Books in 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death is a non-fiction book about the dangers of television entertainment. In the book, Postman explores and attempts to define the ways in which the media of a civilization shapes its discourse. In particular, the author strives to show how television, which was the primary media of his era and still reigns as a primary media source today, has altered public discourse into mere entertainment. It is considered by some to be a classic today not only because of Postman’s uncanny accuracy in foretelling the problems that television entertainment has caused, but also because many of his ideas carry over to issues that we are dealing with in the world of internet communication today.

Postman begins the book by comparing George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, with Huxley’s futuristic work, Brave New World. According to Postman, Orwell’s frightening world of Big Brother’s dictatorial control by means paranoia and isolation isn’t what we need to be afraid of; it is actually Huxley’s soma-induced world of artificial happiness and apathy that we are in danger of experiencing. And, according to Postman, our soma is television.

Postman then expands upon media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the “media is the message” by considering that, perhaps, the media is really the metaphor.  Postman’s goal is to show that not only does a population’s culture define the ways and means of its ability to communicate, but that how that population endeavors to communicate defines that population’s culture.  For example, if a culture uses an oral tradition as its main form of communication, then that tradition affects and helps to define what that culture is. Thus, a nation that is based on TV as its main form of communication does not just use television effectively, but is molded by television into being much more receptive to televised communication.

The author then compares television (as it was when he wrote the book in the 1980s) with the written and published works of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which the author considers to be the zenith of written communication. According to Postman, both the writer and the reader needed to mull over the weight and meaning of each word in order to communicate both the contents and the context of the message to make sure it effectively communicated what the writer had intended to communicate. In the modern world of television, though, the primary focus is on entertainment; the ideas are reduced to sound bites that reduce the audience’s ability to focus on both the contents and the context of the story. Profound ideas are traded for ignorant bliss.

Postman gives some major examples of areas in which television has denigrated our ability to communicate effectively, including: news and information, politics, religion, and education. He characterizes television news as an assortment of attractive talking heads that present enough information to generate an emotional response, but then jump to a different topic before an intelligent understanding about the issues being presented can be reached. Politics becomes nothing more than popularity contests based on style and charisma.  Religion becomes a pre-packaged laundry list of doctrines and commandments presented against a background of modern music and special effects all meant to confuse inspirational guidance with spectacle and baseless assertions. And finally, learning by television becomes learning about television. Whole generations are taught to believe whatever the TV tells them, and what the TV most often says is that feeling good is the most important thing in life. And, the key to feeling good is to buy stuff.

Postman ends his book by going back to Huxley’s Brave New World and restating that there are dangers living in a world where there is no reason to fear, or to learn, or to think. He warns that, unless we can turn away from TV, we will lose all of our civil liberties by simply having no desire to exercise them.

Critics of Postman’s book point out that Amusing Ourselves to Death makes a lot of well-defined claims about the nature of communications but rarely backs any of them up with facts. The New York Times’ 1985 analysis of the book stated that: “Mr. Postman’s weakness for theorizing may be related to an understandable desire of professors of ”communications” (in one incarnation, he was Professor of Media Ecology) to raise their novel specialty to the level of traditional academic subjects.”

But, others, including supporters of Postman’s theories, have pointed out that Amusing Ourselves to Death has not only been a very accurate description of television’s long-term effects on modern society, but that as we move into the information age with Snapchat and Twitter and fake news, it reminds us to consider the dangers inherent in communication without actually communicating.