The self-disclosed thesis of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is that it is “an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television” (8). Thus, the Age of Show Business has replaced the Age of Exposition.
Postman takes an aggressive approach to flesh out Huxley’s prophecy that “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” (vii) Television replaced the printed word and it has changed our entire lives.
“They [our media] are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.” (p. 10) “Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” (p. 15)
He speaks of the inherent bias of different media. Television is so ruinous because it claims significance while only being capable of producing triviality. When culture changed from being print-based to television-based, it lost its capacity to comprehend complex logic and sentence structure. “Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. …there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought.” (p. 50) Postman claims that the rigors of thought evoked by the nature of print media are completely eradicated by the medium of television.
What Television Has Done
Television has become our culture over time; we no longer really discuss it in itself, but only its content. Television has made entertainment the natural form of expression of all our experience (p. 87). There is virtually no thinking on television; it doesn’t show well in such a format. Nowadays, instead of recognizing a presidential candidate by their words, we know them by their television faces. Conversation, in the traditional sense of the term, has been driven out of the majority of daily life in America. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.” (p. 92)
The “Now…this” style of news reporting on television has completely dispersed any hope of contemplating the implications of any news story. Postman claims that Americans are the most entertained and the least well-informed people on the planet (p. 106). In the midst of this context-free outpouring of unrelated stories, we have lost all coherence and sense of relevance to our lives.
The medium does change the method. Take childhood education as an example. The popular children’s show “Sesame Street” claims to encourage kids to love school. But this is not actually the case. “As a television show, and a good one, ‘Sesame Street’ does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.” (p. 144) School is about learning how to learn (in a social environment, not an isolated room). This particular educational children’s show only teaches kids as much and in the same way as other television shows, not at all like a teacher and classmates teach them.
Technology has altered every aspect of life in America in the last century (p. 157). Postman said, “… I [do not] put much stock in proposals to improve the quality of television programs. Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully in presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse—news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion—and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.” (p. 159)
Neil Postman’s book is highly informative and persuasive. His points are made deliberately and clearly. I agree with the majority of his analysis of American society and technology. I can’t help but wonder what he would write about the pervasiveness of the Internet today. One point Postman made that I find particularly relevant and thought provoking is that “no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are.” (p. 161) This can be applied to anything, from trick photography to science fiction. If you are conscious of the positive and negative aspects of a certain medium, you won’t easily be led astray.