Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

To be honest I was a little disappointed by Amusing Ourselves to Death, although this may have been due to high hopes raised by having heard the book mentioned a lot. Much of it seemed either blindingly obvious, or like the moanings of a killjoy who can’t bear that TV is entertaining and that people don’t listen to long speeches any more. However, it’s still very much worth a read for its main point: TV is good at entertainment and anything that tries to rise about that level will fail and be worse than useless. Serious TV is thinly disguised entertainment and there is little need for authorities to censor the media when we so willingly take in the froth that’s fed us. Given that this was written pre-internet, many of its ideas could do with updating to critique a whole new media — it sounds strangely quaint the few times it mentions “computers”. Postman’s How to Watch TV News (UK, US) is probably a good read too.

Foreward

viii Orwell, 1984: What we hate will kill us. Huxley, Brave New World: What we love will kill us. This book is about the latter.

1. The Medium is the Metaphor

6 “We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators, meaning that none of us has the wit to know the whole truth, the time to tell it if we believed we did, or an audience so gullible as to accept it.”

8 The “news of the day” does not exist without a medium to create its form. Was not a part of public culture until the advent of the telegraph etc.

14-15 Media-metaphors (clocks, language, writing, etc) determine how we perceive reality, and create the content of our culture.

2. Media as Epistemology

18-19 In oral cultures, proverbs are very important. Walter Ong: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.” Cultures relied on proverbs to determine what is right and wrong.

19-20 In a modern court print has the most resonance. But speech still has some — testimony, and juries generally rely on listening.

21 In academia the written word is truer than the spoken (citations should be of written things), despite oral exams.

23 “Each culture conceives of [truth] as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant.”

24 “As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it.”

25 In a culture, intelligence is derived from its communication. In an oral culture, memorising stories, proverbs, etc is good. But “merely quaint” in a print culture.

25-6 In a print culture, to be intelligent you must be able to stay still for some time (to read), read, be somewhat objective to interpret the stance of the author, judge the quality of an argument over the duration of the work, cope with the abstractions of the text.

27 Is not saying changes in media change the structure of minds (although that may be the case) just that new media change the structure of discourse. [How do the web, email, SMS change discourse?]

28 “We have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment. We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word.” Just because TV and print coexist, doesn’t mean there is parity — “print is now merely a residual epistemology.” [He suggests that print’s survival is aided by the computer - I assume he’d now, post-Net, see these as different things, or that the computer is bringing a resurgence of “print”?]

29 “Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas about education, knowledge, truth and information. I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.” [But declines only in terms of what our previous printed-word-based culture determines as desirable surely? Is that definition of intellect objectively “better” than a televisual (or now Net) based one? What would a televisual/Net based definition of intellect be?]

3. Typographic America

33 From 16th century on, all knowledge began to be transferred to the printed page in America. Books imported from Britain.

34 Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity. Classless.

35 First printing press in US: 1638 at Harvard University.

36 Most early printing was newsletters. Maybe lack of literature was due to lack of paper — Washington had to write to generals on scraps of paper without envelopes for want of paper. First newspaper: 1690-09-25 by Benjamin Harris in Boston: Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. Banned after first issue.

37 First continuously-published paper: Boston News-Letter from 1704. By 1730, 7 papers published regularly in 4 colonies. By 1800, more than 180 published.

40 Lyceum Movement — a form of adult education. By 1835, more than 3,000 Lyceum lecture halls in 15 states. Intellectuals, writers and humourists spoke there to audiences of all classes.

41 Printed word had a monopoly of public discourse until late 19th century.

4. The Typographic Mind

44-9 Mid 19th century, long speeches to audiences were common at fairs and in politics. 3+ hours not uncommon.

49 Describes Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas’ speeches in 1858 as “pure print”. [He claims that because speeches were written down in advance, and that the language had sentence structure of written word it has the “resonance of typography”. I’m not convinced. Sounds more like oral culture to me.]

51-2 18th and 19th century, print encouraged rational, objective use of mind to interpret the authors’ position. Lyrical, analytical minds.

58-60 First paid adverts in US newspaper, 1704. Until late 19th century adverts were linear in nature — paragraphs of text conveying information appealing to understanding, not passions. In 1890s illustrations and slogans began to be used.

60 In 18th and 19th century public figures were known by their written words not by their image (or even their spoken words).

63 “The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.”

5. The Peek-a-Boo World

64-5 America was disparate, information could travel only as fast as a train could travel, until the telegraph in mid 19th century. It created its own definition of discourse. Not only permitted, but insisted on a conversation.

66 “The penny newspaper, emerging slightly before telegraphy, in the 1830s, had already begun the process of elevating irrelevance to the status of news.” [The sensationalism seems to scupper his argument that all print was rational and solely informative, makes it sound like pure nostalgia.] Telegraph enabled them to print more national news.

67 Flood of info from far away, much of it irrelevant [why is it necessary irrelevant if from far away?]

68 Today, little of the news we see/hear/read will make us change our daily plans — it’s “inert”, giving us something to talk about but leading to no meaningful action. [The response might be that we can do something by “Thinking global, acting local”.]

69-70 Telegraph brought us information we didn’t ask for, for the first time. Changed the nature of how knowledge was acquired. “To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them.”

71-4 Photography appeared at the same time. It also separates the objects from their contexts. It cannot generalize, can only speak about a specific man, tree, etc. It shows. It can’t be abstract. It’s not a language. A photo implies we know about the world if we accept the photo. But understanding begins when we question what we see.

75 Photography went well with the telegraph’s “news from nowhere”: provided an illusion of context for the unknown names and places.

78-80 We now learn about other communication media through TV [er, and vice versa!]. TV has achieved the status of “myth” in the Barthesian sense (a way of understanding the world that is not problematic, that seems “natural”). We no longer question the role of TV, we accept it [er, no]. The world as given us through TV “seems natural, not bizarre”. Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of TV is all but complete..

6. The Age of Show Business

83 McLuhan: “rear-view mirror” thinking — assuming a new medium is merely an extension of an older one.

85 Talking about TV as a specific medium — US TV. Multi-channel, commercial, 24 hour, multi-TV-ownership.

87 “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.” Everything about news shows presents them as entertainment, not to be taken seriously.

93-8 Examples of priests, doctors, politicians etc relying on showmanship and entertainment over their traditional skills. [Some good points but mostly sounds like a curmudgeonly killjoy.]

7. “Now… This”

99-106 TV News is bad because segments are short and shallow, anchors are required to appear believable, they use music, they have commercials. [Valid points, but, duh. But maybe the fact this is TV news to me, that it seems dumb to criticise these factors, shows how accepting I am of its epistemology.]

107 People have opinions about events but, these days, know little background. More rightly “emotions” rather than “opinions”.

111-113 [Snipiness about brevity of USA Today’s news, and the inarticulateness of radio phone-ins. Lighten up.]

114-124 Religion on TV is different to traditional religion. Delivery is different. Therefore the message is different. The environment in which people witness it is different. The screen is associated with all the secular events it shows. Religious shows must attract audiences and so offer people what they want — a less threatening and demanding religion. Effectively a different religion.

9. Reach Out and Elect Someone

127-8 Capitalism requires rationality. Adverts were once propositions that could be true or false. Now they appeal to emotions — can’t be tested, not rational.

132 Politicians have gradually become “celebrities”, appearing on TV not just as political figures (on game shows, commercials, dramas), from 1950s, exploding in 1980s.

136-7 TV provides little context and therefore no history. Continual present.

138-41 Orwell envisaged the government controlling information. But it is more like Huxley. Orwell was more accurate for an age of print where banning books had more impact. Now, despite outcries, it has little effect. Television doesn’t ban books; it displaces them. We have the opposite of censorship — too much TV, but all of the TV is simplistic and noncontextual.

10 Teaching as an Amusing Activity

143 Educational programmes only teach kids to love school if school is like TV. It is, of course, different in many ways — kids might expect to stop watching when they like, behave how they like, etc.

147-8 Three rules that form the philosophy of education that TV offers: No previous knowledge should be required to view a show; there should be no perplexity, only immediately accessible information; there shall be no exposition (the traditional instrument of reasoned discourse.

153-4 There is a danger that TV education will concentrate on teaching things that make good TV, rather than things kids need to learn.

11 The Huxleyan Warning

159-60 TV serves us best with junk TV. It is dangerous when it pretends to be serious (news, documentaries, education, etc). We would be better off if TV got worse (more junk) than better.

160-1 We must gain an awareness of the structure and effects of information, a demystification of media, to have control over TV, computers, any medium. One way: Parodies that demonstrate how TV should be viewed, how it degrades news etc [The Day Today]. But to work it would have to be so popular as to be co-opted by TV. Self-defeating.

162 Other way: Schools should teach this.

Comments

  • Hello, I am a student at Community College of Philadelphia, and I was wondering if you would be able to help me understand an assignment that I have from my Philosophy class about this book, since my teacher refuses to elobarate on postman’s theory in the first half of the book. Please contact me at my email, apathyinmyvains@Hotmail.com. Thank You.

  • Hi, I’m a High School student who would like to know more about Chapter 9 and the thesis of that Chapter as well as the 6 most important points of that chapter.

  • hello i was wondering if you can email me some information on what postman meant with “conversation” in chapter one, and also “news of the day” Thanks.

  • Hi! I’m a student from Germany. Well the thing is, I have to write an essay about Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ on his TV-critism and I was wondering if you could help me out with some points, because I’m afraid that I don’t get everything right! It would be REALLY nice! Thank you very very much!

  • Hi! I have to write an essay about the qualities of typographic mind. One of the qualities that i’m given is “rhetorical resource”. I don’t quite get it. Can you expain it to me? thanks!!

  • Congratulations for a very well written sum-up. I’m NOT requesting more feedback since I actually wanna read the book, but what I wanted to do is thank you for this work.

    Farewell,

    Miguel

  • Hi i am a freshman at a community college and i was required to read this book. I read it and now i have to write a response to it. I didn’t understand this book at all, if you can help please write me back. thankyou

  • Hi I just want to know what critics have to say about “Amusing Ourself To Death” byl Neil Postman

  • Thanks for posting this, now I don’t have to read the book and I can go watch TV instead haha

  • Most of your statements are good questions in the application of said and cited material to the modern world, now that the global culture is replacing television with internet applications.

    But you misconstrue the perspective Postman is presenting time and time again by accusing him of being a “killjoy.” He states repeatedly throughout Part I of his argument that he loves television and its “junk.” He also constantly assesses that television is a terrific forum for entertaining a mass audience - one which he considers himself a strong part of.

    Postman stresses his concerns that television, by and large, is becoming the sole source of information and “truth” in a society now suffering from massive information overload. Television is the most ubiquitous media in America and in the world, with 99% of American households owning at least one television set. Because of this omni-present technology, Postman assesses that its epistemology changes the way common audience members view the world around them and the idea of “truth,” “intellect,” “understanding,” and, essentially, “context.”

    People view much of “serious” television as “truth” (“seeing is believing,” as quoted in Chapter 2 and discussed in Chapters 5, 6, and 7) with no need for further investigation via other forms of public discourse. This is dangerous, as the vast majority of information displayed on television is decontextualized. Saying that TV alone provides truth in itself is proportional to the idea that truth requires no additional context. That is what Postman is worried about; public discourse is threatened by the public appeal of television as the sole voice of “truth” in the culture.

    And I must also reiterate that to you and me, as well as our peers, these arguments seem “painfully obvious.” Two causes factor in here: 1) you agree with the points being given to the extent that it translates within your mind as common sense; and 2) if you are college educated or have at least graduated from high school, you are in the minority of American citizens. One in every four people in America has graduated from college. One in every two people in America has graduated from high school. One in every three people in America is functionally illiterate.

    Obvious points being made here? Sure. But remember, there are many more people out there that do not understand what Postman is arguing whatsoever, nor do those people, I would argue, understand the effects of television and technology on their own cultural understanding of the world.

    So, in short, don’t shortchange Postman with disappointment and nitpicking as a form of criticism. Realize that there are considerable differences in the audiences consuming this argument and consuming television and other public discourse. Take the argument for what it is, make some counterarguments, and continue the discussion. That’s all Postman wanted in the first place.


    David Ruckman
    Senior Radio/TV Major at Bradley University

  • hey guys..i just finished reading this book, but i dont get the last chapter..i have to write an essay about this book..and i need to know the maine points…could u help me out?

  • Years ago while in university we used Postman’s book as a study in a psych course. Final outcome, information overload and desensitization to reality is what he’s trying to get across. Talking heads saying nothing in order to draw an audience for commercials is what it’s all about. Nobody takes the time to digest the world or stop and smell the roses, if you prefer.

    Good book, hard read.

  • Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was published in 1985. As his son, Andrew, notes in the introduction, the book’s publication came at a time before the world was “infiltrated by the Interent, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds,DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat screens, HDTVs, and iPods.” He doesn’t mention email, gaming, or satellite radio. The rate of techology change is increasing geometrically. It’s hard to keep up and adapt.

    Have the changes in the media during the last 20 years altered our culture as televison and altered out culture of our elders? If so, how? Are the changesof the same magnitude? Or are they lesser or greater? Postman’s Typographical Man gave way to what we might call “Televison Man.” Is Televison Man now stepped aside? If so, who is taking his place? How has this storm of change changed our lives and culture?

    Please feel free to email me…

  • I am required to write a 5 page paper on the tenth chapter of this book. Could you give me a detailed overview on the 10th chapter to better my understanding?

  • There is an “overview” of some of the points above. If you want something “detailed” I’d suggest reading the chapter itself… Sorry I can’t be more help.

  • I just stumbled on Wikipedia’s article on this book earlier today (I was looking for information on Huxley’s Brave New World in preparation for an essay I will be writing soon), and, somewhat interested in its concept of televisual control, decided to Google search it, thus discovering this website. That said, I’m wondering if anyone reading this knows of any books detailing the effects of the internet as a media, rather than TV (because I believe that is more releveant in today’s world).

    Any links, books, or ideas would be much appreciated.

  • Hey!
    I have to read the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” for a Cummunications and Human Values class and i am having trouble understanding the main points. could you please e-mail me a quick summary of the chapters to make sure I got everything I was supposed to out of this book. I’d appreciate it greatly

    my e-mail is: odaia@eden.rutgers.edu

  • Oyster Bay — if you’re resorting to posting a request for a summary of the book at the bottom of a page that contains a summary of the book, I’m not sure anyone can help you further.

  • can you help me i am in high school and i need to write an essay that defines his position his style and the rhetorical devices he uses
    my email is orl3210@yahoo.com

  • I am a middle school student. this book was ok, but i would think it was a college book. not hard to understand, but it was a little…odd in some parts

  • I’m in high school, reading this for an advanced English course I greatly enjoy. I was wondering some things though. You don’t analyze chapter 8. Why is that? I enjoyed your notes to the book immensly. They were very refreshing and agreeable. Also, what are your thoughts on Orwell’s theory vs. Huxley’s theory. In my own opinion, I think the two coexist in our own age, but I would like to inquire your thoughts. If you care to talk about this, time allowing, my email is catloverjd@hot.rr.com. Thanks again.

  • Hi Julie. I’m guessing that there was nothing in chapter eight that interested me enough to make notes about it.

  • Thanks for the write up! I have a test on this book tomorrow, and I was looking for a summery like this to supplement my studying

  • okay, so i have a test on this tomorrow and i’m still having a hard time understanding this book. could anyone explain to me the main details or point out some important facts that one would expect on a test or exam? i may be having a brain cramp, i don’t know, but i’m just not comprehending these words. all i really understand is that television is junk. i KNOW i’ll need to know more than that.

  • this has helped a lot!!! this book is not in any onther notes online. thanks

  • For the people who are posting with pleas and cries for help on the papers and tests they have to complete, why not just cite your own words, as they pretty much some up the consequences of what Postman is talking about it Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    “….but I am just not comprehending the words…”

    …and i am having trouble understanding the main points.”

    “Could you give me a detailed overview on the 10th chapter to better my understanding?”


    Thanks for posting this, now I don’t have to read the book and I can go watch TV instead haha


    Postman would be rolling over in his grave. My teacher told us not to read the book like we watch TV, by just letting it wash over us. Good advice. I hope that none of you have to read complex reports when you graduate from college. Not likely you can turn to the net to have someone else do your thinking for you. jcb

  • Judging from some of the inane and inarticulate comments posted above by so-called students, I would say that Neil Postman’s observations about how television and newer digital mediums/culture function to stifle critical thinking are as relevant today - if not more so - as they were in 1985.

  • Hi. I’m a high school senior and I’m in a class called Media, Culture and Values. Our teacher assigned Media as Epistemology and I was a little put off because the teacher and I have very different views on Media. Anyway, I think this was a great summary of ideas for someone who has only read one of the essays.
    Also, I was amused by your introduction. Thanks!

  • Hi, I’m from high school, and I can’t be bothered thinking for myself. Can you please do it for me?

    Thanks.

26 Sep 2004 in Writing

Walking on the right
It seems there’s a convention of pedestrians passing each other on the right in America. If so, is there also a convention of passing on the left in the UK and I’ve been oblivious to it my whole life? Am I dumb?

26 Sep 2004 in Links

On this day I was reading