Book Summary: Amusing Ourselves to Death

Title: Amusing Ourselves to Death
Author: Neil Postman
Genre: Sociology
Release Date: 1985


Why did you choose to read this particular book?

What peaks your interest? What is the book about? What does it promise to deliver?

TV and media rules our lives in 2022, and with the emergence of TikTok and short videos, we are constantly hooked! When I came across this book warning how TV will fashion our culture and saw that it was written in 1985. I was keen to read in hindsight.

Summary of book

The year 1984 had just passed when this book was published, and Americans were happy that the totalitarian scenario envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (written in 1949) had not come to reality. Postman, on the other hand, claimed that Americans were headed toward a new dystopian scenario of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which entertainment and technology, rather than democracy, dominated the ideology. They would willingly give up their rights in the absence of government regulation. Orwell predicted that we would be condemned by externally imposed oppression and freedoms, such as no more books but just new technology, while Huxley predicted that people would enjoy the control, adoring the technology that would destroy their ability to think. We would not be denied information, but rather fed information.

The form or method of communication has dictated what ideas we communicate and how we express them throughout human history. The age of television, which replaced the age of typography or print, altered the nature of our public discourse by redefining every facet of public life, from politics to religion as entertainment and showbusiness.

Neil starts by talking about epistemology- how we perceive objective truths. He concludes that our concepts of truth have changed in line with the evolution of communication. Conversation spreads ideas. As a result, all cultures are a dialogue. Or, more precisely, a group of conversations conducted in various symbolic forms. Nowadays, however, we have decontextualized knowledge scattered across enormous areas. Consider how that influences our culture.

Conversation will continue, but who is conversing may change, particularly who leads the conversation. The medium has evolved with time, from painting to public speech, print, telegrams, radio, and television.

Before the invention of the printing press, oral societies relied on speech resources such as mnemonics, parables, and proverbs to express objective facts in their community. These days, such expressions like ‘Actions speak louder than words’ are reserved for youngsters. Idioms like these can’t be used court whereas they would settle tribal dispute back in the day.

Oral testimony is required by the courts because it is a more accurate depiction of the state of mind than written testimony. The testimony contains more than just words. To make their testimony convincing and appealing, orators developed rhetoric and sophistry. As orators improved at their craft, they lost their authenticity in their speeches. The written word became more legitimate as it consolidated and validated ideas.

Because written materials were rare, only useful information and truths were recorded. Apart from oral transmission, this was all that was accessible for 500 years. Then came the invention of paper, and everything began to be written. There was soon a print culture in America, ranging from newspapers to literary novels.

Print shaped public discourse, influenced its substance, and appealed to and demanded a specific audience—one capable of reading and logical reasoning. The colonists were voracious readers, particularly of the Bible, and brought numerous books from England as well as having others imported. Literacy rates were high across all social strata. On January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was released and sold approximately 400,000 copies. In 1985, the equivalent would be a book selling 24 million copies. Paine’s achievement would be akin to the Super Bowl today in terms of garnering public attention.

Participating in debates on current problems was a significant aspect of civic and social life. County and state fairs featured speaker line-ups in three-hour sessions, with equal time for opponents. In the West, “Stump” speaking, in which speakers held forth while standing on a tree stump, was also popular.

Speakers utilised long, complicated phrases, as well as rhetorical tactics like sarcasm, irony, and metaphors, confident that their audiences would be able to keep up. They may also rely on their audience’s knowledge of history and current events. The attention spans of the audience were astounding.

This was the Age of Exposition in America, marked by a style of thinking, learning, and expressing oneself. Print culture demanded and developed the qualities required for mature dialogue or speech, such as thinking clearly, coherently, and objectively.

In the 1860s, the first print advertisements appeared, such as ‘reward for sought thief’ and ‘home for sale.’ The advertisements were practical and significant. After 30 years, slogans such as ‘You click the button, we do the rest’ begin to appear. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Age of Exposition had given way to the Age of Entertainment.

Along with this, America was taken over by the telegraph. It enabled long-distance messaging of fires, murders, and floods. This consolidated America into a single neighbourhood, but the problem was that it transported information via headlines rather than explaining or contextualising it.

Print remained the primary means of transmitting a large amount of information until the emergence of photography. An image was worth a thousand words since it caught space and time. It gave news broadcasts credence because ‘seeing was believing.’ But, as with the introduction of slogans, everything was soon swamped with images.

Humans always tended to corrupt communication methods.

Now, on to the topic at hand, television. It has brought mass communication into our homes, making it an accessible teacher and companion. It is the new command centre, and every piece of furniture is pointing to it. We sit on our sofas, and our entire understanding of the world and what is going on is predicated on its biases. It teaches us what we should think and what we should buy.

This is the most recent mode of communication. It was marketed as a vehicle for reflecting culture, but it is actually shaping culture. Not only American culture, but cultures from all over the world, and it is not their own culture that is being imposed on them, but an American culture.

Returning to how we find objective truth and propagate our thoughts. The newest kind of truth-telling is television. We are intrigued by what we see because it amuses us, not because the language or imagery is authentic. We appreciate being entertained by opening up the globe at the touch of a button. Even what was originally a compilation of facts has evolved into comic quiz shows.

We’re essentially “amusing ourselves to death”—that is, hastening the destruction of our civilization by conforming to television’s definition of things without thinking about or even realising what’s going on.

Radio and television began as a window to the world, particularly in communicating public dialogue, but the content of public discourse eventually became entertainment. Advertising companies, once again, try to draw individuals in for their own benefit. Advertising has been improved. The average single frame lasts less than 3 seconds. The content is dumbed down to require as little comprehension as possible. Emotional pleasure is employed to entice more people, and it covers all elements that would normally require reading a book to comprehend.

What stood out for you

Of course if Postman was writing this today, he would have moved on to social media, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.

Key Points

As mentioned in the summary.

What you dislike

As someone who is generally optimistic. I believe that modern technology is a force for good. It’s as the scientists told the rabbis, you can agree or disagree, but we’re going ahead. Television and other kinds of communication are unavoidable. We must accept them and put them to good use.

The last two chapters prolonged the argument Postman is making unnecessarily.


No illustrations

Has the book met its objective?

Yes. Considering Postman was speaking from a period when TV was on a high, we can see over the last 30 how it has dictated our lives and become our source of truth.

Would you recommend this book

Yes, I would suggest it to anyone who is interested in how cultures evolve and the impact of the method of communication to them.

Final Verdict:

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