Book Recap: Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death

Book Recap: Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

by Neil Postman, published 1985, one of those rare books that is both a “should read” and actually fun to read. The first line is:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves

And I think that's just delightful. And the whole book is under 5 hours long! Thank you, Mr Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Audible Audio Edition): Neil Postman, Jeff Riggenbach, Blackstone Audio, Inc.: Books Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Audible Audio Edition): Neil Postman, Jeff Riggenbach, Blackstone Audio, Inc.: Books

There's always something strange about giving an outline/recap of someone else's work. A part of you feels like you're stealing their soul, that they presented the work the way they wanted to so who are you to present it differently? [This doesn't really square with the realities of the publishing market, where books have to be a certain length for commercial reasons, regardless of the author's desires. But anyway].

It feels even stranger when it's a book that rails against decontextualised knowledge, and whose self-summary is "the form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be."


I truly do urge you to read the book, but here are my key takeaways from AoTD as well. [All quotes are approximate].

The real model for our present is not Orwell's 1984 (1949) but Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). "What Orwell feared was 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 that the truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

As Huxley later wrote: “The civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny fail to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions. In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, by inflicting pleasure.”

Different cities symbolise the spirit of America at different times: Boston in the late 1700s (the shot heard round the world), New York in the 1800s (immigration, the melting pot), Chicago a little later (railroads, cattle, steel mills). "Today we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspirations. Its symbol: a 30ft high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl."

In short: we've become fixated on entertainment; entertainment has pervaded politics and education and religion; and it's largely because of the television. [To be explained later....]

A technology is "merely a machine; a medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates." Each technology is "a metaphor waiting to unfold". [As a small example, "with the invention of the clock, eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events," so "the inexorable ticking of the clock" may have done more to weaken "God's supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment."]

In oral cultures, perceived intelligence is a lot about memorisation (of proverbs, poems, parables and so on). You might recall that Jesus used a lot of proverbs and parables. But in print cultures, memorisation is charming but basically a party trick, and "any reliance on proverbs or sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children."

Meanwhile, intelligence in print cultures has its own special requirements; e.g. it requires you "to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time" while reading a book, and if you cannot do this a print culture "may label you as... suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency." Point being, different dominant media determine what's valued and how people think.

Print is well-suited to exposition, argument and rationality. That's because the written word has little going for it except semantic meaning. [Are you ready for a contrast with television, later? I bet you are].

The dominant media of a culture influences everything else in that culture. So in print cultures exposition, argument and rationality also pervade politics, religion and education.

The United States was an especially print-ful culture. Early Americans held with Luther that the printing press was God's greatest blessing. Men in Massachussets and Conneticut (c. 1680s) were about 90% literate, "quite possibly the highest concentration of literate males anywhere in the world." Literacy rates for women were estimated as high as 60%.

De Tocqueville remarked in DiA (1835):

An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he were addressing a meeting, and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say "Gentlemen" to the person with whom he is conversing

In 1800s America, debates were an incredibly popular pastime, and the way people spoke was like writing but out loud.

An early debate between Lincoln and Douglas (not the famous 1858 debates) started with Douglas talking for three hours straight. Honest Abe told the audience: look, it's five o'clock already, he would need at least three hours to reply and Douglas would of course get an hour after that. Shouldn't they all go home for dinner and come back refreshed to finish? And they did, happily listening to seven total hours of print-like oratory. [N.B: Lincoln and Douglas weren't candidates for President or even Senate at this point].

What's this got to do with television? We're getting there! But first, we blame the telegraph.

You see, "telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to context-free information" introducing the concept that "the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve.... merely to its novelty, interest and curiosity."

Postman says this kind of context-less information just didn't exist in people's lives previously, and that we now don't realise what a massive change it created.

Henry David Thoreau actually called the problem, precisely, in Walden (1854):

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas. But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world nearer to the new, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

[I mean.....]

It was the combination of the telegraph with another new invention that Postman blames for the demise of print culture: the photograph (daguerreotype), in the 1840s. "The photograph was to visual experience what the printing press was to the written word"

"In a peculiar way," photographs are what made the telegraph's "news-from-nowhere" palatable. The telegraph "threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces," but the photograph "provided the illusion that the news had a connection to something within one's sensory experience."

Print culture "held powerful sway over the minds of [late 1800s] Americans," and the early 1900s was marked by "an outpouring of brilliant language and literature." But it was the "nightingale song" of the Age of Exposition, "most brilliant and sweet as the singer nears the moment of death."

Photography and telegraphy set the key [for] a language that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence. Theirs was a duet of image and instancy, and together they played the tune of a new kind of public discourse in America.

All subsequent forms of media amplified those biases of image and instancy. Some media, like film, were naturally inclined that way, while others like radio "were overwhelmed by the thrust of the new epistemology, and came in the end to support it."

Collectively, this created

a peekaboo world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again.... a world that does not ask us, indeed does not permit us, to do anything.

Like peekaboo, it is endlessly entertaining. There is nothing wrong with peekaboo, and nothing wrong with entertainment.... We all build castles in the air; the problems come when we try to live in them.

We did not come to live there until Television.

Alright: now we're getting to television.

Postman wants us to know that his complaints about television are about epistemology [theory of knowledge], not aesthetics. He's not doing "standard-brand academic whimpering," making the usual "elitist complaint against junk on television." In fact, "the best things on television are its junk, and no-one and nothing are seriously threatened by it."

His problem is that television has become "a way of understanding the world ... that we are not fully conscious of." It is "so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is invisible". [This is what Roland Barthes called "myth", apparently, though that seems a confusing name to me].

This way of knowing has transformed politics, education, religion and the basic way we think. "The loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment", and "we have so thoroughly accepted [television's] definitions of truth, knowledge and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane."

Television has even "achieved the status of a meta-medium," determining "not only our knowledge of the world but even our knowledge of ways of knowing." For example, "in the past few years we have been learning that the computer is the technology of the future", that people won't be able to run their businesses etc without computers. "Perhaps some of this is true," but the funny thing is that people are learning all of this from television. [Again, this book is from 1985].

Postman wants to make television "visible again", and show that "television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to [print culture]'s way of knowing," that "television speaks in only one persistent voice: the voice of entertainment," and is "transforming our culture into one vast arena for show-business."

Of course, we might find out we like it – "that is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago."

The problem with television is basically that it's about visuals and motion.

Sustained complex talk does not play well on television. It can be made to play tolerably well if only one camera is used, and the visual image is kept constant, as when the president gives a speech, but this is not television at its best, and it is not television that most people will choose to watch.

Again, there's nothing wrong with entertainment!  But "television has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience." Its "smiling countenance is unalterable.... All subject matter is presented as entertaining."

For example, if you actually pay attention to news shows, even when the topics of discussion are serious, everything about the production says it's all in good fun: "the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show." We're so used to it that we don't even notice: "a news show is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis."

"Good television" has little to do with what is "good" about exposition or other forms of verbal communication, and everything to do with what the pictorial images look like

Postman really has it in for TV news, specifically. On news shows, no topic gets more than 45 seconds of consideration – how could you possibly do serious thought that way? Then they jump to a completely unrelated segment, saying "now this," "now this."

The interruption of news by commercials "all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a form of serious public discourse." What would you think of his book if Postman suddenly paused and "wrote a few words on behalf of United Airlines or Chase Manhattan Bank? You would rightly think I had no respect for you, and certainly no respect for the subject."

We expect books and even movies to maintain consistency of tone and continuity of content. But "we're no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, when a newscaster, having just declared that nuclear war is inevitable, goes on to say he will be right back after this word from Burger King."

Again, "a technology to a medium is like a brain to a mind.... A technology is merely a machine; a medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates".

In a country where the majority of people do not have television sets, or where there is only one channel, or where it does not operate around the clock, or where it is used mainly for government propaganda, TV is the same technology but a different medium than it is in America.

It is conceivable to use TV as a surface to read texts, or a device to listen to radio, but in practice we don't. In America, its "full potentiality as a technology of images" has been exploited.

The "trivialisation of public information" is not "all accomplished on television;" rather, "television is the paradigm of our conception of public information. As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it."

For example, the (then) new newspaper USA Today is modelled on television. Says Postman: It's sold on the street in receptacles that looks like television sets, its stories are uncommonly short, it relies on pictures, it's a visual delight, its sport section contains enough pointless statistics to distract a computer.

Its editor in chief said: "We are not up to undertaking projects of the dimensions needed to win prizes. They don't give awards for the best investigative paragraph."

It started printing in Sept 1982 and was the 3rd largest daily in the US as of July 1984, overtaking the Wall Street Journal.

Postman says that "the phrase serious television is a contradiction in terms." He talks about a TV discussion following the showing of "The Day After" (1983), a serious film about nuclear catastrophe. The discussion was framed to be maximally serious – e.g. it was shown without commercials, and the participants "included Henry Kissiger, Robert McNamara and Elie Wiesel, each of whom is a symbol of sorts of serious discourse." [Plus Carl Sagan, William Buckley and Brent Scowcroft!– wild lineup].

And yet... "each of the six men was given five minutes to say something about the subject," but "there was no agreement on exactly what the subject was, and nobody felt obliged to respond to anything anyone else said. In fact, it would have been difficult to do so, since they were [called on in sequence] as if they were finalists at a beauty contest."

Postman says that each of these men played their role perfectly – the Scientist, the Military Man, the Statesman – down to Ted Koppel as "the moderator pretending he was sorting out ideas while in fact he was merely directing the performances." The "80 minutes were very entertaining in the way of a Samuel Beckett play – the intimations of gravity hung heavy, the meaning passes all understanding." The consequence of good TV is "applause, not reflection."

[Of course, we can't help but mentally contrast with the Lincoln-Douglas debates].

Speaking of debates: in the modern (?1984) televised presidential debates, each candidate gives 5 minute answers with 1 minute rebuttals, and is "less concerned with giving off arguments and more with giving off impressions." The winner is determined later by commentators according to their style, not substance – who scored a hit, as if it were a boxing match. "Thus the leader of the free world is chosen by the people, in the age of television."

Actually, says Postman, sports would be a relatively encouraging vision for politics. Sports have some kind of objective standard, and "where an athlete stands in relation to it cannot be easily disguised or faked." A public opinion poll on "who is the best woman tennis player in the world?" is irrelevant, because "Martina Navratilova's serve provides the decisive answer." Equally, an athlete cannot argue the spectators into believing that her screw-ups are actually wins.

But in the age of television, politics is not like a sport; politics is show business. And in show business, all that matters is appearance. In a word: politics is now advertising.

In the (earlier) print age, advertising was about propositional statements. The propositions might not all have been true, but "they assemble a context in which the question "is this true or false?" is relevant."

This "context was shattered" in the 1890s with "the massive intrusion of pictures and photographs", and then with the "non-propositional use of language", i.e. slogans.

On television, "most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo-parable", like "the lost traveler's check" or "the phone call from the son far away." Like biblical parables, they have "irrefutable emotional power" and "are unambiguously didactic." They're about "how one ought to live one's life," and have the benefit of visual symbols. Short is better than long. Drama is preferred to exposition.

This inevitably seeps into our politics. Says Postman: a person who has seen 1 million television commercials might believe that complex language is not to be trusted, that all problems have quick and easy solutions, and that all problems can be expressed in theatrical form.

On television, "the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience" [in much the way Coca Cola sells you an identity you want to have of yourself, without having to say anything at all about their product].

How about censorship?

John Milton (as in the Paradise Lost poet) wrote in his Areopagitica (1644) that in all previous times there were only two types of books that "the magistrate cared to take notice of" – those that were blasphemous and those that were libelous.

But about 200 years after Gutenberg's printing press (c 1440), with the maturing of the Age of Print, governments became scared of ideas. "In a world of printing, information is the gunpowder of the mind," and the censors want to dampen the gunpowder.

This worried the drafters of the US Constitution, of course. At the time of the Founders, "most free men could share leaflets or the spoken word," with power and freedom over both contents and distribution. The relevant threat was government tyranny, and the Bill of Rights was written "to prevent government restriction on the flow of information and ideas."

But when "Orwell envisioned that 1) government control over 2) printed matter posed a serious threat for Western democracies, he was wrong on both counts." He "was addressing himself to a problem of the age of print," and by now "tyranny by government has been superseded by another problem altogether: the corporate state which, through television, now controls the flow of public discourse."

Postman quotes a dean of the Annenberg School of Communication [named for a newspaper baron, by the way]:

Television is the new state religion, run by a private ministry of culture -- the three networks -- offering a universal curriculum for all people, and paid for by a hidden form of taxation without representation.

In the age of television, everyone has an opinion on every news event, but "it is probably more accurate to call them emotions than opinions." Television is

altering the meaning of being informed, by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation ... in the sense it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB.

Disinformation is not false information, it's misleading information, misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial, information which gives one the illusion of knowing something but in fact leads one away from knowing.

Postman insists he's not saying that the television channels are deliberately trying to deprive people of good information; he's saying that this is the inevitable result of news packaged as entertainment.

It's more serious than just not being well-informed, it's losing our ability to understand what it means to be well-informed. "Ignorance is always correctable," the problem is that "we take ignorance to be knowledge."

In fact:

Television provides a new definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. Credibility here does not refer to the past record of the teller ... it refers only to the impression of authenticity, sincerity, vulnerability or attractiveness, choose one or more conveyed by the actor/reporter.

[This is a matter of considerable importance beyond television]: if credibility replaces reality as the test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality, provided that their performances consistently generate a feeling of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonour that now shrouds Richard Nixon stems not from the fact that he lied, but that on television he looked like a liar.

Postman claims that "Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate Hearings;" meanwhile, "all President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true, and there is nothing entertaining in that."

Postman beats up a bit on the "now this" culture of television news – switching suddenly from one topic to another. Why? Because

Contradictions are mutually exclusive assertions which cannot possibly in the same context be true. In the same context is the key phrase here, because it is context which defines contradictions.

[Postman's cute example: there's no contradiction between preferring apples to oranges and oranges to apples if "one is in context of selecting a wallpaper design and the other in the context of selecting fruit for desert."]

So contradictions "require that statements and events be perceived as interrelated aspects of a continuous context;" if you "disappear or fragment" the context, there can be no contradictions.

Postman says the "now this!" fragmentation of shared context has changed our expectations of coherence. "Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to hide anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotised by technological diversions."

All assumptions of coherence have vanished, and so, perforce, has contradiction. In the context of "no context", so to speak, it simply disappears. And in its absence, what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or entertaining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public's indifference.

In conclusion:

The public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference. Aldous Huxley would not have been surprised. He believed it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.
Television is our culture's principle mode of knowing about itself, and therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world is the model for how the world is properly to be staged.

It is not merely that on the television screen, entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse, it is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.

As [print culture] once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command.

Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue [using] propositions, they argue [using] good looks, celebrities and commercials.

Ok, finally: Postman comes out pretty strongly against trivia. He says it's not a coincidence that, for example, crosswords arose at the same time that "the telegraph and photograph [transformed the news] from functional information to decontextualised fact," because crosswords and cocktail parties and trivia games

supply an answer to the question "what am I to do with all these disconnected facts?" And in one form or another the answer is "why not use them for entertainment? For diversion? To amuse yourself in a game?"

.... but still, I can't help collecting here my favourite trivia from the book:

  • The first American newspaper was launched in 1690.
  • The development of a literature in the early US was held back "by scarcity of quality paper: as late as revolutionary days George Washington was forced to write to his generals on unsightly scraps of paper, and his dispatches were not enclosed in envelopes."
  • "Stump speeches" were so called because the speaker stood on the stump of a tree.
  • Painting is three times as old as writing
  • Cicero remarked that "the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present"
  • In the time of Mark Twain, so mid-to-late 1800s, speakers could get $250 per speech in a town and $400 per speech in a city. (Postman doesn't give a calculation but, depending on the year, this would be around $7,000 in towns and $10,000 in cities in 2022 dollars).
  • Thomas Jefferson "didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and while he was president wrote a version of the four gospels from which he removed all references to "fantastic events", retaining only the ethical content of Jesus' teachings." [Maybe this is common knowledge to Americans, but it was surprising to me!]
  • The first newspaper to make use of the telegraph did so exactly one day after the first public demonstration of the telegraph.
  • The first paid advertisements appeared in American newspapers (The Boston Newsletter) in 1704: a reward for the capture of a thief, a reward for the return of an anvil, plus an ad for the sale or let of "a very good fulling mill" on Long Island.
  • The ad for the fulling mill ended "[inquire with so-and-so] and know further" – I really like "...and know further" as a kind of original "read more."
  • The first two advertising slogans, in the 1890s, were "You press the button, we do the rest" [by George Eastman, Kodak Cameras], and "see that hump?" [for Frank Emerson Delong's humped "hook and eye" that held women's dresses closed – previous hook-and-eyes had no hump and regularly fell open].
  • [Frank Delong later invented the bobby pin, incidentally – what a life]
  • The average length of a shot on network television (in 1985) is 3.5 seconds
  • 100k-200k hours of US television have been exported to LatAm, Europe and Asia (in equal measure) at the same time that American prestige [says Postman] has declined.
  • An American at age 40 has watched 1 million commercials. [I calculated, this would be about 70 ads per day]
  • George Bernard Shaw's remark on first seeing Broadway: "It must be beautiful, if you cannot read."

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