Amusing Ourselves to Death is the title of a 1985 book by Neil Postman, the late professor of media ecology at New York University. The book is a harsh diatribe against the television industry and its effects on intellectual discourse in the United States. Postman argues that television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, and religion.
The first half the book dedicated to Postman’s updating of the famous Marshall McLuhan postulate, “the medium is the message.” Postman agrees, but takes it even further, stating in chapter one that “the medium is the metaphor.” What he means by this is that our language — how we communicate — is only a metaphor for reality. We describe as best as we can what we see and know, but our method of communication circumscribes how and what we can actually communicate. (Postman speculates that this might explain the Second Commandment injunction against craven images: the ancient Israelites didn’t want to limit their view of an all-powerful God). Postman argues that whichever mode of communication we chose to communicate with — be it oral, written, or televisual — each comes with its own set of limitations. That is to say, “the form excludes the content.” Some ideas simply can’t be expressed by certain forms, which should be obvious to anybody who has tried to write a sarcastic email without the appropriate smiley face at the end.
Postman then guides the reader through a history of communication, laying out eras where oral, print, or visual communicative forms were culturally dominant. For Postman, the print era (or “age of typography”), which he dates roughly from the Reformation to the 19th century, is when rational argument reached its pinnacle. The form of the written word, Postman argues, requires the marshalling of evidence and the presentation of that evidence in a logical order on behalf of the writer, and patience and discernment on the part of the reader. Only in the printed word could complicated truths be clearly and rationally conveyed. During the 19th century, when print had reached hegemony in communications, rational thought was most most valued. A striking example that Postman provides is the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While these were certainly public spectacles (usually held at state or county faires), Postman presents them as if they were dueling long-form essays. In one particular debate (Peoria, October 16, 1854), Stephen Douglas went first for three hours, after which Lincoln suggested everyone go home to have dinner and come back in the evening. They did, and when they returned they were treated to another four hours of oratory, starting with Lincoln’s rebuttal of Douglas. This sounds more like a paper session at an academic conference than a political debate, which is Postman’s point exactly. Lincoln and Douglas did in fact write their speeches out, to make sure they made sense, though neither man was insensitive to audience response. In this era — the era defined by typography as the leading communicative form — major public figures, be they politicians, preachers, or activists, were expected to be able to make a long, rational, public argument, and the people were willing to listen to it. They weren’t bored into a catatonic state by long speeches at all, Postman says, but rather interacted with the orators to encourage them, or challenge them to stay on point.
In the modern (television) age, however, things are different. Following the maxim “the form excludes the content,” political discourse is no longer about rational argument, says Postman, but about entertainment and appearance. People get bored if television images are too static, so change has to happen, and frequently. There’s no time to lay out a rational argument, but no matter, the passive audience doesn’t want long, convoluted logic anyway. Television makes its viewers demand constant stimulii, so if things take too long, people just tune out. Debates rarely last even 90 minutes (poor Stephen Douglas), and politicos are lucky to get five minutes on a particular question. Not that they’re expected to give a logical answer, anyway. In fact, they can repeat catchphrases as much as they want (“lockbox!” “it’s hard work!”) as long as they don’t look bored (Bush 1992), condescending (Gore 2000), or annoyed (Bush 2004). Who really remembers what was said at the debates in last fall’s campaign anyway? Indeed, did those commenting on the debates immediately following ever really analyze what was being said? In rare cases, such as on PBS, you’d get issue analysis, but for the most part television political commentary was limited to “how did the candidate come across to voters?” “Did he appear honest? Likeable?” Postman says that we’re no longer in the Age of Typography, but rather in the Age of Show Business. Television’s rules control how we communicate today, even if we aren’t on television ourselves.
Take, for example, religion. Postman spends a chapter on religious discourse in the modern era, basically laying into television preachers. Postman [who was Jewish, but used a good number of biblical examples in the book] found some televangelists intelligent, others insulting and emotionally manipulative, but, above everything else, they were all entertainers. There was very little theological depth compared to say, Jonathan Edwards or even Charles Finney. Postman comes to two conclusions about religion on television:
The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as a second banana.
The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers…
Postman is probably lucky he’s not around anymore to see the new crop of television evangelists, like Joel Osteen, who are all show and barely mention Christ at all in their sermons. (On the other hand, maybe it’s Osteen who’s lucky…)
Anyway, the point is that in the Age of Show Business, nothing escapes becoming entertainment. Postman reserves special scorn for the way education and news are handled by television. The news chapter is specially informative. Our news programs (even the “serious” news shows), he says, are basically entertainment, because they have music introducing ideas and pretty people (“talking hairdos”) telling the stories. News items are stripped from local context, commodified, and given to the viewer in bit-sized chunks, separated by the “now…. this!” phenomenon, which serves to make the viewer dismiss it all as meaningless candy he or she can do nothing about. The “now… this!” phenomenon can be tried on any news broadcast. Tonight, for example, and update on the bombings in Lebanon will be followed by (“now…. this!”) the Michael Jackson trial. Postman says this serves to reduce it all to meaningless trivia.
Amusing Ourselves to Death is definitely a polemic. Postman starts off the book with a comparision of George Orwell’s 1984 with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, stating that the point of his book is exploring the possibility that Huxley’s dystopia was correct. Unlike 1984, where people are controlled by violence and pain, Huxley presented a world where people are controlled by giving them every pleasure they want. For Postman, television is the device that controls us by entertainment and pleasure. Is Postman provocative? You bet. But he does raise important questions about our uncritical acceptance of what we see on television, and our easy adoption of any new technology that comes down the pipe. Amusing Ourselves is a book that should be read and discussed by as many people as possible.