Book Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

(Note: the following post is a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is one of my favorite books and has had an enormous amount of influence on me. Hence, you will likely see a handful of posts related to Postman’s book on here in the future. Hopefully, this post will entice you to read the book yourself; Postman expresses these ideas far better than I do.)

Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death is very systematic and intentional, starting with some basic premises about the television, moving to the history of communication in our culture, and ending with how the television affects different arenas of discourse. He clearly states his main arguments in the first chapter, which revolve around the idea that the changes from typography to television have “dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse” (Postman 8). Because of this shift and because of the natural constraints of television as a medium, “all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment” (Postman 3). As a culture we are robbing ourselves of the ability to talk seriously about social issues.

In the second chapter Postman articulates that the television is a tool for entertainment and that as we use this medium as a tool for discussing news, religion, politics, and education, we remove the necessary solemnity from these discussions. To be clear, Postman does not oppose the television as a whole. He advocates the television as a source for entertainment but argues that entertainment and somber discourse should be separated. We cannot say that all forms of communication are equal because “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the forms of expression” (Postman 22). The written word, Postman says, is more appropriate for cultural conversation than the television, because “the epistemology created by the television is not only inferior to print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist” (Postman 27). As he continues in this book, Postman articulates this idea further.

Postman explains America’s historical background of typographical communication in chapters three and four. He claims that, “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of,” (Postman 41) which created a “serious and rational public conversation, from we have been so dramatically separated” (Postman 43). Much of Postman’s argument is based on the idea that “words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning” and they are serious by nature “because meaning demands to be understood” (Postman 50). As he continues, Postman clarifies this idea further, but he strongly believes that words provide us a unique ability to communicate in a way that pictures cannot match. This culture based on typography possessed public discourse “characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas” (Postman 51).

In chapter five Postman moves to show how the introduction of the telegraph and the photograph changed communication. The creation of the telegraph, he claims, “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (Postman 65). The telegraph changed communication by flooding the world of communication with “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence” through “context-free information” (Postman 65). By use of “sensational, fragmented, [and] impersonal” information, the telegraph displayed an ephemeral mode of communication where “facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation” (Postman 70). The introduction of the photograph further damaged our culture’s ability to carry on serious public conversation. Postman holds that language is “the medium we use to challenge, dispute, and cross-examine what comes into view, what is on the surface,” but photography “offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (Postman 73). The creation of the television built on the problems of the telegraph and the photograph “raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection” (Postman 78).

Postman, in the sixth chapter, expands upon this critique of the television. He succinctly states that “television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend, it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification” (Postman 86). Therefore, everything on television exhibits these biases, in spite of subject matter. In chapters seven through ten Postman goes to great lengths to develop this argument and point out specifically how the television damages our cultural ability to communicate about news, religion, politics, and education.

As I read this book for the first time, I honestly did not like what I read. It felt like an attack my way of living and the way I grew up. But Postman’s arguments are so well laid out that they are difficult to merely discount offhand and must be dealt with. The background information that Postman begins with sets the foundation for the rest of his argument by pointing out how certain mediums have different biases. His most compelling arguments, I would say, revolve around the impact of the television on the way we think, communicate, and view the world. I have witnessed and can affirm the decline of public discourse because of this lack of context, logic, and seriousness. We are more aware of world events, but we also take things a lot less seriously because of this constant immersion in information. We have a hard time putting together extended, complex arguments, because we are used to pieces of information being communicated in a quick, unrelated fashion.

My one critique of this book is that I wish Postman had lived longer and been able to edit it to include a section on the impact of the Internet. In this book I think Postman assumes the television will remain a prevalent form of technology for a long period of time, and fails to account for how technology will continue to change. The Internet is already beginning to displace the television as our primary form of communication and entertainment. I would argue that much of what Postman says about the television can be transcribed to the Internet, but it is not a perfect correlation. I did not grow up with cable TV, so I cannot relate to watching the television for new, politics, and religion. But I can understand going to the Internet as an authority on all of these things. I think the Internet offers more choice and variety than the television, but still suffers from many of the constraints of the visual basis and brief, irrelevant information.

The main piece of application that I would take from Amusing Ourselves to Death is that we need to be aware of the effects and biases of the television and other digital media. Many of these forms of technology have a place as entertainment, but struggle to accurately and winsomely convey ideas. Knowing that the television has its basis in entertainment, I think that we should be skeptical of the “serious” information portrayed on the screen. As a general rule it would be good for members of society to limit their digital media consumption, in order to break away from some of the addicting, destructive tendencies of these types of technology. It also would be beneficial to try to find other, typographically based forms of communication as a medium for more serious, complex discourse.

I do not think that we should throw technology away completely. Our digital culture has both strengths and weaknesses. In order to get the most out of our current technology, we need to be aware of these leanings, play to the strengths, and try to work around the weaknesses. It is paramount that we find a balance between overreacting about the woes of technology and praising its merits. This book is a great conversation starter and deals with a topic that most of us have never thought about. Due to Postman’s logical and compelling argument, this book should leave us, as inhabitants of this technological world, with much to consider.

 

For further reading, here’s a link to Postman’s  book.

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If you have thoughts or reactions to the post, please leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!

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