Some highlights from “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman

Victoria Bondarchuk
Sep 4, 2018 · 13 min read

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business(1985) is a book by Neil Postman. Analysing modern media, Postman argues that the contemporary world better reflected by Aldous Huxley’s , whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, than by Orwell’s work, where they were oppressed by state control.

The following summary is direct citation from the book.


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists, who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Locations 230–231)

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of communications knows that every new technology for thinking involves a trade-off.

The printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local

Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 644).

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, №1, Boston, Thursday Sep. 25th, 1690" (PDF). nationalhumanitiescenter.org. Retrieved 22 May 2016.

Reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality. The written word endures, the spoken word disappears; and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 976).

By 1858, the photograph and telegraph had been invented, the advance guard of a new epistemology that would put an end to the Empire of Reason.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 931).

Telegraphy made relevance irrelevant

The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.

The telegraph made information into a commodity.

Post Office Engineers inspect Marconi’s equipment on Flat Holm, May 1897, Source

Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to criss-cross the nation.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 1203).

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph’ but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. ~Thoreau, Walden

Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods — much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough — became the content of what people called “the news of the day.”

The Onion

How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines — sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each “headline” stood alone as its own context.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 1279).

Like telegraphy, photography recreates the world as a series of idiosyncratic events

The new imagery, with photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a supplement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality.

But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have “learned” nothing (except perhaps to avoid strangers with photographs), and the illyx will fade from your mental landscape as though it had never been.

“What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?

But the use the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem-solving, or change. It is the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives.

Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 1383).

Television

I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice — the voice of entertainment. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago.

Marshall McLuhan (Source)

Marshall McLuhan used to say that new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse.

Photo by on

Television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.

Television has achieved the status of “meta-medium” — an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.

Source: stevecutts.com

But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable.

What is show business and what is not becomes harder to see with each passing day.

Indeed, many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings and other disasters.

Trivialization of public information

“T

White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused.” However, here the words mean something the Queen did not have in mind. They mean that what is not amusing does not compel their attention. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow.

There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 1854).

Education

The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.

People From Around The Globe Met For The First Flat Earth Conference (HBO)

Advertisement

We may safely assume, therefore, that the television commercial has profoundly influenced American habits of thought. Certainly, there is no difficulty in demonstrating that it has become an important paradigm for the structure of every type of public discourse.

Not until the end of the nineteenth century did advertising move fully into its modern mode of discourse. As late as 1890, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form.

In Britain, outdoor advertising was based on hoardings (billboards): England 1835, by John Orlando Parry

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. Reason had to move itself to other arenas.

The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy. The consumer is a patient assured by psycho-dramas.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 2162).

Source: stevecutts.com

Media conscious

The first occurred in the fifth century B.C., when Athens underwent a change from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture. To understand what this meant, we must read Plato. The second occurred in the sixteenth century, when Europe underwent a radical transformation as a result of the printing press. To understand what this meant, we must read John Locke. The third is happening now, in America, as a result of the electronic revolution, particularly the invention of television. To understand what this means, we must read Marshall McLuhan.

Plato, John Locke, Marshall McLuhan

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers or Marshall McLuhan’s (quite different answers, by the way).

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 2394).


Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle Location 2641).

Victoria Bondarchuk

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UX Researcher, member of Open Source Design