Amusing Ourselves to Death is a book that was written before it’s time. The book, written by Neil Postman, was published in 1984. As a communication theorist and educator Neil Postman has dedicated his career to the arts of communication. Before the popularity of the personal computer and before the creation of the internet Postman makes bold claims about the effects the advance of technology is having on America. I bought a personal copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death and it turned out to be a very good decision. The book was one of the best I have ever read. I had a highlighter in hand and it felt like I was marking about every other sentence and paragraph.
This book is an analysis into the changes that are occurring to the American culture due to the decline of the Age of Typography and the rise of the Age of Television. This transformational period began just in the twentieth century. It wasn’t until then that electricity and television played a part in the lives of almost all Americans. The shift from the decline of the Age of Typography to the rise of the Age of Television has, according to Postman “dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas.”
The Age of Typography is the age in which the printed word came readily available to basically all people in America. This was able to happen because of the development of the printing press and the increasing amount of writers coming to the scene. This new medium, the printed text, allowed the American people to be influenced in a collective manner. The books and newspapers that were created before the twentieth century were greatly valued by the culture, and were taken very seriously.
Discourse in America was different when it was governed by the printing press, compared to being governed by television. The way a culture speaks is a reflection of the content that flows through the primary communication medium. The printed word was and still is valued as a very credible means to convey information. It is even seen to be more credible than even verbal discourse itself. Postman argues that the “weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication.” In other words, as the culture moved from the primary communication medium of the printed word to the medium of television the ideas of truth moved right along with it.
Postman views intelligence as a person’s capacity to grasp the truth of things. Intelligence then is obtained from the character of the culture’s primary forms of communication. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the truth and honesty of a culture are completely found in typology and television. Ultimately, the truth and honesty of a culture are found in the individual hearts which make up a culture.
Not only does Postman argue that truth is less accurately portrayed in the Age of the Television but he suggests the American mind has lost a great amount of capacity to understand and comprehend. The vocabulary and sentence formation people used in the Age of Typography was so much more advanced than it is today. Just read a book from the eighteenth or nineteenth century and it is difficult to read because of the advanced vocabulary and sentence structure. That is the way people use to talk.
In the Age of Typology, the amount of time people were able to actively listen to a speaker and comprehend well was great, compared to the Age of Television. An example Postman gave in the book was with Abraham Lincoln and his debate with Stephen Douglas. The debate between these two men lasted over seven hours and it was directed towards one crowd all day long. I agree completely here with Postman in that today’s American culture could not sit and listen seven hours to a guy speak. The American culture does not have the interest or attention span to watch (either on television or in person) a speaker, even if he was the president, for seven hours. Postman includes that Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would have probably been largely incomprehensible to a present day audience, just because of the eloquence of the language used. People today would have to concentrate and focus at least twice as much than they normally do to attempt to read and comprehend the Gettysburg Address.
Postman declares that “television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing.” The conversations observed on television supports incoherence and are poor in nature because television’s primary objective is to entertain a culture. He even sees news programs as a prop to entertain people. The primary medium of communication, the television, does not exist to inform people but to entertain them. Television is making entertainment the natural means for the “representation of all experience.” All subjects are being portrayed as entertaining and this is not the way the world was nor is it the way it should be.
Just look at all the advertisements on television, especially during the news. Companies want to advertise their products to the most possible number of viewers. This causes the broadcasting companies to vamp up their shows to reach and entertain as many people as possible. They are trying to sell the news, thus making all subject matters a form of entertainment. It is harder and harder to see what is show business and what is not. Television has become the standard for our formation of public information.
Postman goes on and addresses the effects of religious programs being on television. He says that “on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment.” He uses good examples to support this statement, and yes, many religious programs seek to entertain its audience by stirring emotions to cause people to donate money. I would even argue that the majority of religious programs fall into the category of seeking to entertain. Many religious broadcasts have secondary motives and are unbiblical in form. However, there are one or two “religious” programs that were being broadcast on television during the writing of this book, whose desire was not to entertain. In fact, these programs don’t even ask for money during or after their program. Yes, the medium of television is weak in a large sense for religious organizations to use, but this medium has had a great and positive impact on my life.
The Age of the Television has had a profound impact on culture and this is a book that explains the impact very well. It is interesting to think about what this culture would look like without the television. Another study is needed to address the impact the internet and social media is having on the culture. It has transformed the face of culture for sure and when the primary medium of communication changes it affects your life and mine.