Amusing Ourselves to Death: A Prophecy Come True?

Analysis of Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

amusingourselvestodeath
Source: vox.com

Amusing Ourselves to Death was originally written by Neil Postman in 1985. One would be suspicious that a book published thirty-three years ago would not ring true for the current age, but on the contrary. It has held up with astonishing accuracy accounting for how long ago it was written. Postman believed that all content and meaning had tailored itself to suit the medium of television, which inversely had resulted in the decline of the age of typography.

Postman suggested that the dominant medium imposed itself onto the consciousness of individuals and institutions. The age of typography suggested rationality and cohesion, while the age of television suggested the absurd. Television polluted society as it claimed to carry important cultural information when in actuality it did not. Another one of Postman’s main beliefs was that Huxley’s future was more plausible than Orwell’s future, due to the age of television.

Postman emphasized the idea of Huxley’s novel Brave New World which depicted a dystopian future where people submit to the overexposure of pleasure or entertainment. Postman compared Huxley’s dystopian future to Orwell’s novel 1984, another dystopian future that instead portrayed a future where power is relinquished due to oppression, not of pleasure (Postman 3–30).

Typography to television

The printed word was the only form of expression during colonial America. The country was bound to the printed word as Protestants and other intellectuals came from highly literate areas of Europe (Postman 31–41). Words carried meaning that was seen as sequential and could be analyzed. During the years of typography advertisers, lawyers, businessmen, and clergy assumed the same beliefs that were presented with typography to the overall public as business was conducted.

Notable people in society were known for what they wrote not what they looked like in the typography age, unlike today (Postman 44–62). It was not until the telegraph and the photograph was introduced that the printed word was disturbed. The telegraph and photograph presented context-free information which made information more irrelevant and fragmented (Postman 64–76). When television was introduced, it disrupted the typography age even more as it discouraged its audience to think.

The average network television frame lasted up to three-point five seconds in the 1980s. The brain was always distracted and the eye did not rest as several frames flashed by on the pixelated screen. Television was so fast that it held no meaning, order, or reason and attacked the ideas presented in the print era. According to Postman, the quality of pictures was focused on rather than mere reflection or verbal quality. The medium had morphed into a person’s first teacher or close friend as both parents shifted into the workforce during the television’s introduction, leaving the children at home.

The box with pictures did not discriminate based on age, economics, or education. Instead, television remained affordable and did not require prerequisites to watch (Postman 77–90). “The problem is not that television presents us with the entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining….” (Postman 87). Postman did not suggest that all television is bad by default but rather its overarching execution of presenting topics as entertaining.

News

Topics from sports, education, news, religion, and politics have been subject to the entertainment industry. Newscasters did not fully react to the terrors that they were reporting on and carried on with the next upcoming story. In addition, the credibility of the newscaster was built on their appearance rather than their intelligence. The news was taken further away from reality as it attempts to create content that conforms to the format of television (Postman 99–102).

Politics

Politics too had been intertwined with television through commercials and news. Political commercials were far from rational and relied on drama or emotional gratification to gain audience support. Television did not help decipher who was the best candidate but rather what candidate mirrored the voter’s preferences based on basic information that was given during a television commercial. Political candidates were based on pictures presented through the television rather than a candidate’s political discourse. In result, politicians transformed into celebrities (Postman 126–141). An interesting note that Postman made when he was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death was that he wrote it during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was a previous Hollywood actor. Today the current president is Donald Trump who was also involved in televised shows that spanned for over a decade. It appears that history has repeated itself and television has something to do with it.

Religion

Religious groups have also started to notice the power of television and it was reported that in the 1980s around thirty-five networks were owned by religious organizations. Those who supported the deliverance of the Gospel through television claimed that television had the largest reach and it would be a missed opportunity to not influence audiences through the medium. However, by presenting the Gospel on a television set the audience did not enter into sacred space or a religious mindset. The seriousness and reverence of religion usually accomplished through ritual and theology are disregarded. Audiences instead acted casual in the comfort of their homes as religious programs broadcasted attractive people falsely depicting Christianity as easy or amusing (Postman 116–124).

Education

Even the traditional classroom had suffered from the pressures of making subject matter entertaining. Educational shows such as “Sesame Street” teach children to enjoy television rather than school. Traditional school was formatted differently than sitting in front of a screen. It required participation, social skills, hands-on work, and collaboration. Teachers have had to resort to the use of more visuals in the classroom to conform to television (Postman 142–154). In recent years, online schooling has become a more common alternative to traditional schooling. Society has gladly accepted television without opposition.

Solution

Postman claimed that television was an ideology that imposes and distorts itself onto society. The only way to oppose the influence of television that Postman suggested was to change how one should watch television, but not necessarily how much one watched. Postman believed that content that was junk on television was not a factor for its sway in society since print mediums also generated content that was also junk (Postman 155–163). “…only through deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information….is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.” (Postman 161).

Criticism

Since the release of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman has received a variety of support, criticism, and expansion of his ideas. In 1986, a year after Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, Donald and Virginia Fry wrote a review that criticized the work. The two claimed that Postman blamed television for the entirety of problems that plagued society, does not provide a solution for the effects of television, and that the book would be more suited for only those who are wary of culture.

The authors’ assertions are unfounded as Postman does not blame television for all of society’s problems, but rather confronts how television has shifted society and distorted major topics. Postman does admit that there seems not to be a cut and dry solution to television, but makes an attempt on what little can be done about the problem and acknowledges this pitfall in his work. Amusing Ourselves to Death is not just bias to cultural watchers but presents a convincing cultural analysis of television that impacts plenty of people. Although the authors did point that few people are to respond to Postman’s criticism.

This assumption is a valid concern as Postman’s solution to television is weak and people are rarely called to act against something they are unaware of or if it will cause no immediate harm.

Hal Himmelstein agreed and expanded on main points of Postman in Television Myth and the American Mind, which was published in 1994. He agreed with Postman that television has established an ideology that intersects into multiple spheres of society but also connects the idea of television as an ideology to myth. Himmelstein outlines myths that television has created such as the ordinary family, the individual, and the celebrity.

Myths generally model how life previously was, is, and should be. According to Himmelstein, television focuses on eternal youth, style, status, power, and glamour in unending streams. This idea creates impermanency and dependency on material goods. Himmelstein further expands on the effects of television as he points out that television is controlled by those in important political or social sectors of society.

Only those powerful enough can deem what is put on television and what ultimately shapes the structure of society. Himmelstein conveys an important idea that a select few have the authority to authorize what goes on television and ultimately influences people in mass distribution.

Contemporary Criticism

Postman is further analyzed by Martin Esslin on the effect of television from a contemporary perspective in The Age of Television, published in 2002. Esslin agreed with Postman that television has distorted culture, changed lifestyles across America and has shortened attention spans.

However, Esslin disagreed with Postman on the idea of television quality. Postman suggested that the quality of television did not influence audiences but, Esslin believed that in fact, it did. Esslin claimed that quality over quantity mattered when making televised shows. Television that was poorly made wasted people’s time, while television programs that were made with high quality could enlighten audiences.

Out of the two, Postman was most convincing. Esslin’s idea of making less content that is high in quality has not stood up as businesses look to create more content for consumers to view that is of high quality and that the idea of quality content varies person to person. Esslin also stated that the medium often presented people as objects, dehumanized actions, imposed American culture onto others, and simplified the world (Esslin 77–89).

The idea of people being presented as objects and dehumanizing actions currently depends on the subject matter of the televised event and how it is portrayed. However, the idea of television that imposes American culture onto others and simplifies the world is a prevalent concern.

The United States has exported the vast amount of television which has indirectly carried American culture across the world and simultaneously ignored other cultures. The storytelling of television does simplify the idea of good and bad, excluding proper context and exposition. The subtle way television is told and what content is emphasized has indirectly shaped people’s perceptions and lives.

Matt Quayle presents a contemporary commentary on Postman’s work in The Method of the Medium is in Motion, published in 2010. Postman believed that no televised show contributed to audiences since all content was presented as entertaining. Quayle questions Postman’s remark as he explains that there are televised shows that do benefit audiences in the long run such as interviews, public hearing broadcasts, and economic discussions.

These televised formats are not particularly dependent on the entertainment factor. “The format of TV can actually raise and diminish the level of public discourse in this country simultaneously.” (Quayle 8). Quayle also points out that audiences will begin to evolve and will require a more complex discourse as time goes on. The author is correct in assuming so as it becomes harder and harder for the entertainment industry to keep repeating previous attempts. Audiences have become more savvy accounting for clichés, believability within a program, and other minuscule details that entertainment considers when creating a product whether the audience knows they do so or not.

The most important consideration that Quayle makes is the idea that the internet has overridden television as our central communication discourse.

This statement would seem more apparent as traditional television subscriptions are at a record low in contrast to streaming services that see more success day after day. “Some scholars have already declared the TV as a dead medium now that the Internet is upon us.” (Quayle 8). Streaming has now become a top priority for companies such as DC Comics, Disney, and Amazon who wanted to monetize on the popularity of streaming.

However, new questions arise as streaming becomes more dominant. Should streaming be categorized as television or a separate entity? Does the same critique of television apply to streaming? If so, when does it apply to the idea of streaming? Quayle does not dismiss Postman’s remarks on television, but rather revises them and encourages others to learn from Postman’s example from the past to account for a new dominant medium; the internet.

Media analytical minds from the 1980s to the present have both agreed and disagreed on Postman’s ideas since the publication of Amusing Ourselves to Death. Many media observers have also expanded on Postman’s ideas as they have overseen the rise and fall of television. Esslin, in particular, was able to assess television in a more contemporary sense as it was no longer the dominant medium.

Postman’s major claims support the idea of technological determinism, which proposes that technology determines the social and cultural structure of society. Although Postman would probably not agree with the core values of the theory of technological determinism today, he would agree that television has greatly affected society.

Conclusion

Postman provided a very persuasive idea that television has influenced society greatly and has encouraged a Brave New World dystopia through presenting content that is overwhelmingly entertaining. Postman diagnoses television by addressing what it makes possible, impossible, how it suggests the way the world is, how it suggests the world should be and creating cultural artifacts in the aftermath of its dominance.

Television makes possible hundreds of moving images that create an abundance of never-ending entertainment and impossible the idea that one is not entertained for a long stretch of time. The medium suggests that the world was not entertaining before the television and that the television is like a human right, something that everyone should have access to. “The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” (Postman 106).

It is important to note the time periods that the Frys, Himmelstein, Esslin, and Quayle all commented about the effects of television because the medium’s dominance has varied over the years. Television was once restricted to a few channels, but now it seems as if the channels are endless.

Despite Postman’s analysis of television, the internet has since come into play as the main communication medium to replace television. Television has created a cultural artifact called streaming, a hybrid between television and the internet. Streaming can be accessed through any electronic device and has replaced traditional television.

People no longer gather around the television, but their own personal devices. In addition to streaming, the internet has combined a multitude of resources to entertain people from social media to online shopping. The internet has stretched the idea of entertainment to new heights. The ideas that Postman introduced in Amusing Ourselves to Death have perpetually drawn readers to the work because of its timeliness and insightfulness on the subject of the effects of television.

Although the eclipse of the television has come and past with the introduction of the internet, Postman has created a solid thesis to analyze television that will come continue to aid generations to come as new technology shapes the world.

Works Cited

Esslin, Martin “The Long Term Effects of Television.” The Age of Television, Transaction Publishers, 2002, pp. 77–90.

Fry, Donald L., and Virginia H. Fry. “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business review and criticism.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 30, no. 3, Summer 1986, pp. 357–359. EBSCOhost.

Himmelstein, Hal “Television Myth and the American Mind.” Televison Myth and the American Mind, Praeger, 1994, pp. 1–11.

Postman, Neil. “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Penguin Books, 2005.

Quayle, Matt. “The Method of the Medium Is in Motion.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 67, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 300–310. EBSCOhost.

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“Writing is an underestimated art, you are painting colorful images in people’s minds by using words of black and white” -Anonymous

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