Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death

Every day, media provides a window to the world. Examining how we use and depend on media in our everyday lives is important, if we want to figure out how it affects the way we take in information. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman asks readers to look into the ways that television in particular affects the way they look at the world.

Postman first published this book in 1985 as a cultural critique. Television had been widely accessible since the 1950s, but had developed considerably into one of the most important and influential forms of media in the world. This was also a time before the widespread usage of the Internet. TV entertained people. It gave them around-the-clock news from around the world. The most influential part of television, however, according to Postman, was the never-ending flood of information that filled each and every second that a person tuned in.

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In 1980, CNN became the first 24-hour news network.

While television offered plenty of benefits for the average viewer, Postman argued that it also came with its fair share of problems. His main goal in publishing this book was to outline its negative effects on society. Above all, Postman expresses his fear that the United States will eventually succumb not to an Orwellian, thought police-esque form of control, but to something he sees as much worse. Instead, he muses, the America of the present is set for something along the lines of Huxley’s vision of control. In his view, we will eventually be so entertained that all of our activism will be washed away. The bread and circuses of ancient Rome will find a new home with television.

As an academic, Postman sets up his argument with some historical context. The United States has always been able to share information in one form or another. We’ve always liked to weigh in on current issues. When Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, TV was just the most recent way for us to do that. Postman does well in explaining the origins of American opinion-sharing and entertainment, whether it was shared through the telegraph, the newspaper, or ridiculously long, all-day Presidential debates.

Postman uses prime examples from television, like 60 Minutes or Sesame Street, to show how the unique ways that television affects its viewers. Much of his criticism stems from a constant demand for entertainment, and a new trend of passivity. By comparing the act of watching TV to something else, like reading a book or watching a live debate, Postman shows the different requirements each put on the individual. He argues that there is not much in television except the complacent taking-in of information.

I really appreciated that Postman set the stage for his main points by walking us through American history. It adds credibility to his arguments, and it gives a wider sense of context. Because this essay was written during a different time, though, perhaps its reasoning should be updated.

I read this book for a mass communications class. At the end of the assignment, the entire lecture hall (a roomful of Millennials) tried their hand at pulling some of these arguments apart. We did surprisingly well against a book that has withstood decades. Of course, Millennials as a whole don’t really watch television anymore. Instead, we prefer the internet. Postman states that television is the bane of active discourse in America, and that electronic media is much less rewarding than what came before it. With even more additions to media, maybe these arguments are better suited to a more introspective, individual approach.

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Postman aims lot of criticism aimed at Sesame Street. Image from Muppet Wiki

Now that the internet is a huge part of life, even more has changed since this book was first released. While I can understand where a lot of Postman’s arguments came from, I can’t help but wonder just how much of it is applicable today.

We have so much more information now, and much of it is customizable, easy to access, and tailored to specific needs. Anyone can add their opinion or search for answers online, and that lends itself to a more active approach. The internet changed American discourse just as much as television did, and I’m sure that new advances will keep those changes coming. The students in my class understood that, while television has created a significant change in media today, perhaps its effects are more isolated to television itself, as well as those who watch it regularly. If anything can be taken from Bilton’s comments on the matter, it is that the internet has once again brought an active mindset to the forefront.

Yes, entertainment is more important than we think. Yes, we should try to avoid passive consumption where it counts. Entertainment that only pacifies the public would be a nightmare. More than anything else, though, I believe that this book is the starting-point for anyone who wants to look into the media they use on a daily basis.

If you enjoyed this, try:

Nick Bilton: I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works
Podcasts: Hidden Gems
Libraries: Support Your Local Free Information

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