Abstract: Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves To Death”

10 Nov

New School University, Media Studies, Fall 2008

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business, 20th Anniversary Edition, Penguin Books, Copyright 1985 by Neil Postman, Copyright 2005 by Andrew Postman

Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death” is an exposing and intriguing narrative on how television as an image dominated “meta-medium” demands an epistemological shift from the world of print media, thereby altering American public discourse and society. The book is separated into two distinct parts; the first building up to the second by providing a brief history and context for part two which aims to prove the point that television has changed the manner in which information is conveyed and disseminated as well as how it has transformed the very idea and value of what information is today. Postman argues that television frames life in “pseudo-events”, downplaying rational argument and discussion (for these forms of communication do not lend themselves to the medium), and fostering viewers to accept and live in a decontextualized life. While the references to pop culture are slightly dated, Postman’s argument remains relevant as societies and cultures cope with the aftereffects of the internet age and surge forward into the mobile era.

Postman provides an insightful, yet not full-proof, historical brief on America’s way of thinking as defined by print media. America was a typographic society and literacy rates were extraordinarily high in comparison with Europe. Postman portrays the print media society as “content-laden and serious”. However, his brief mention of American pamphlets hints at the deterioration of the contextual and serious method of reading. He notes that these daily pamphlets were written on poor quality paper and thrown out at the end of the day. I would argue that the idea of impermanence and brevity that these pamphlets instilled in the American reader was the beginning of the end of the print age that Postman so reveres. In any case, the invention of the telegraph introduced “context-free information” allowing for the delocalization of information, where there is no true relevance to one’s life. The telegraph also lent itself to brevity in that an exposition would not lend itself well to such a medium, rather information was short, brief, and totally irrelevant.

Postman argues that television intensifies the telegraph’s irrelevance and is even more “dangerous” to the American mind because of its entertainment value. He provides examples from televangical shows to the daily news. Television does not have “prerequisites” to watch it – rather information is simple, short, totally irrelevant, and decontextualized. Postman’s concern lies in the belief that through the influence of television the American mind and world view will become totally decontextualized and irrational. However, I believe Postman takes the television too seriously – at least from a contemporary perspective on television’s influence on thought and world views today. People have come to accept and expect television to be entertaining and decontextualized. In that sense, I would argue that today hardly anyone in America takes television seriously. Perhaps this is because of the internet’s influence on our method of finding out the “truth” and information in general. I wonder what Postman would think of the internet, of text messaging. Is he rolling in his grave every time we text or instant message? Surely these forms of new print media are far more relevant than the telegraph or television, albeit stripped of content… lol.


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