Lost in a World of Amusement

A Review of 'Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business' by Neil Postman.

by Terry Severson - 19 January 2017

Television skull - Amusing Ourselves to Death - Illustration

Television, a technology that has spread quickly across the United States and throughout the world now satisfies a global human desire for easy entertainment. But how has TV changed society? In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (originally published in 1985) Neil Postman grapples with this question. The result is a book that continues to be studied in universities and colleges throughout the United States.

It’s well accepted that technologies, once they are diffused throughout society, can have profound and transformative effects. Examples abound, such as the birth control pill empowering women, the bicycle allowing the poor to travel much further and faster than their feet could possibly carry them, and the car leading to the end of horse society, cleaner streets, and suburbia.

And then there is the invention of the Gutenberg Press, one of the most transformative technologies in human history. Not only did the ability to cheaply print books, pamphlets and newspapers radically change how society organized itself, this invention also profoundly transformed how people interact with the world and how they experience reality.

During the Middle Ages when literacy was rare, life was profoundly different. For the average person, their knowledge of the world was based on personal experience and hearsay, they had to rely purely on their memory to make sense of the world. Every personal relationship, the village layout, addresses, recipes, songs, stories and work skills, all were memorized. For news of the world beyond their village, troubadours traveled from village to village bringing news in rhyming verse.

The printing press changed all that. Not right away, but over the next few hundred years as books and literacy spread, people’s view of the world expanded greatly. Instead of just being knowledgeable about their own part of their village, detailed news of the rest of the country became much more available. Different recipes, different ways of doing things, the development of science, more efficient business practices, more reliable property lines, more dependable laws and government, all developments due to the printing press. As books spread, so did literacy and education. (In 18th century England, thieves who could prove that they could read, were given lighter sentences, usually a short stint in prison instead of hanging).

Memory suffered, why remember everything when it can be written down? But the trade-off was well worth it as the Enlightenment and the end of the Dark Ages were the inevitable results of this spread of literacy and books.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman makes the argument that American society has gone through a similar transformation, from literacy based to TV based.

Today, the stereotype is that the American fathers were elites who (influenced by the Enlightenment) dragged the ignorant public into democracy and revolution. But Postman argues just the opposite, that in the early days of the American Republic, print was the main form of mass communication, not just for the elites, but for the general public as well. Not everyone could read, but for the majority who could, print was a central part of their lives. He points out that “…between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, quite possibly the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at the time.” 1 Later he quotes Jacob Duché who wrote in 1772 “The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar… Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader.” 2

Postman goes on to list the many ways that reading was prevalent in the early America, from the enormous sales of Thomas Paine’s book “Common Sense” (almost one book for every 6 citizens) calling for American independence from British rule, to the popularity of newspapers, pamphlets and books imported from England. Reading was a national obsession (especially in the North) for men and to a lesser extent women too.

As Postman points out:

“From Erasmus in the 16th century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the 20th, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality… To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable class 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.” 3

As an aside, in 2011 a study by Dr. Richard Arum looking at the effects of higher education on critical thinking skills was published. What he found was that while not all the academic majors encouraged critical thinking skills, the two main majors that did were the natural sciences (not surprising), but also the humanities, with its emphasis on large amounts of reading and writing fact-based and coherent arguments.

Reading is useful for entertainment, but also for serious subjects and analysis. Television (and video) by contrast is a very different form of communication:

“To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” 4

Postman isn’t the first person to criticize television news. Countless books have been written about the many deficiencies of “the media”, focused mainly on TV news as that is where most Americans get their news.

Where Postman differs is his argument that television is intrinsically an entertainment medium. Scientists don’t publish their papers via video, and attempts to broadcast court cases have only damaged the justice system. Despite encroachments, formal education is still not done by video. Similarly, news is degraded by putting it on TV. To justify the enormous costs involved, television news must be made as entertaining as possible while keeping at least an aura of gravitas. TV newscasters often have high ideals for educating the public, but must bow down to ratings and the public’s appetite for being entertained. Ninety-nine percent of television is entertainment no matter how serious the subject matter.

An excellent example from this book are the famous (at the time) Lincoln-Douglas debates where one candidate would take three hours to make a statement, and his opponent took three hours to respond, plus a rebuttal of at least another hour. People in the 1800s were not perfect, but they definitely had a very robust attention span!

Speeches of a few hours were common, and in the case of printed speeches it is clear that they were written for a very literate and well-informed audience. These debates were oral in nature, yet the content of their presentations was very literary. Although relatively few people saw these debates in person, the debate transcripts were printed and read across the country. By contrast, in the TV broadcast political debates of today the candidates take just a few minutes to make a statement, and their opponent a few more in response. How the candidates dress, their demeanor, do they get in any good “zingers” have become significantly more important than 200 years ago.

Americans have spent the past 50 years spending more and more time in front of the TV. The show business, entertainment ethos of television has not only permeated their news and escapist TV watching, but according to Postman it has permeated our culture and society at large:

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes 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.” 5

Of course, wanting to be entertained is human nature. The difference is that for the first time in history people are spending huge amounts of their childhood being entertained, and then a majority of their leisure time as adults, binge watching videos and watching video news. The result is a populace that is obsessed with being amused. The parts of their lives that don’t involve entertainment have become boring and less appealing. Being able to entertain oneself has become a lost art.

Non-TV news, such as newspapers and internet news sites have had to ramp up their entertainment value to stay afloat. And politicians must prove not only their leadership qualities, but also their relatability, their “authenticity”, and most importantly their ability to entertain.

It is not just news that has had to become more entertaining to please the public, so too has education, religion, advertising, politics, and even personal relationships.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is an amazing book, and it makes an argument that is completely unique and extremely prescient. There is a whole genre of books criticizing the many ways that American media is failing its duty as the fifth estate. The public agrees as trust in the media is extremely low. But Postman’s argument goes further, it isn’t just news media that is to blame, it is our love of endless entertainment that has led us to abandon the much more serious, thoughtful, and rational print-based culture for pure entertainment.

Note, if you read nothing else, read the foreword, a brilliant distillation of how our democracy is imperiled, not by censorship and totalitarianism, but by our obsession with being entertained.

Notes

  1. Postman, Neil. (1985.) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin. Page 31.

  2. Ibid, p 34.

  3. Ibid, p 51.

  4. Ibid, p 87.

  5. Ibid, p 92.

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