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Occasionally one stumbles across a work which perfectly summarizes an era. For example, we hail the muckracker novels, primarily "The Jungle," as a brilliant picture of the late 19th century in America; likewise, any Jonathan Edwards sermon captures the essence of Puritan New England. But Neil Postman, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," has created not a picture, but an exposition of the state of America today. That it is an expostion, is extremely important. Postman's thesis in this brief but articulate book consists of two tenets: (1) The form of communication, to some extent, determines (or is biased toward certain types of) content; (2) Television, as our modern-day uber-form of communication, has biases which are destructive toward the rational mind. TV teaches us to expect life to be entertaining, rather than interesting; it teaches us to expect 8-minute durations of anything and everything (anything else is beyond our attention span); it teach us to be suspicious of argument and discussion, and instead to accept facts at face value. Furthermore - and, by far, the most important discovery Postman makes in this book - TV teaches us to live a decontextualized life. Just as a TV program has nothing to do with anything before or after it, nor the commericals inside it, we learn to view life as a series of unconnected, random events which are entertaining at best, and bear no significance toward any larger picture. As a culture, America has lost its ability to integrate experiences into a larger whole; and Postman's explaination for part (not all) of this problem's development makes perfect sense. It certainly is true that the vast majority of Americans are perfectly happy not to develop any sort of framework or philosophy; life is simply life, and one doesn't need to consider it.Read more ›
For anyone interested in exploring the meaning of the rapid eclipse of ordinary reality and how it is being changed and altered by the rise of the electronic media, this book is very important. From the introduction and Postman's tongue-in-cheek comments about the novel 1984, his observations regarding the cogency of British author Aldous Huxley's technotronic nightmare vision in "Brave New World" through out the book right up to its conclusion, Postman binds your interest by illustrating and documenting how the rise of the elecrtonic media and its manipulation of what you see in way of news and entertainment has inexorably changed the meanings,purposes and ultimate uses of politics, economics, and technology. As Huxley himslef warned, totalitarian societies need not arise through violent overthrow of the democracies using brutality, cruelty and violence, but can also occur whenever the citizenry is successfully deluded into apathy by petty diversions and entertainments, as well. Postman shows how the electronic media's presentation of facts and fcition in an entertaining fashion diverts us, channeling our attention, money, and energies in ways that make us much more susceptible to social, political and economic manipulation and eventual subjugation. The book is a bit difficult to read at points, but well worth a sustained effort and a little concentration. For any citizen concerned about how the media is rapidly changing the rules of political, social, and economic engagement, and what it portends for the future, this book is a must read. And follow it up with Postman's book "Technopoly", which picks up where this book leaves off.
Postman's book is a harsh diatribe against the television industry and its effects on intellectual discourse in the United States. Postman argues that television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, and religion.
The first half the book dedicated to Postman's updating of the famous Marshall McLuhan postulate, "the medium is the message." Postman agrees, but takes it even further, stating in chapter one that "the medium is the metaphor." What he means by this is that our language -- how we communicate -- is only a metaphor for reality. We describe as best as we can what we see and know, but our method of communication circumscribes how and what we can actually communicate. Postman argues that whichever mode of communication we chose to communicate with -- be it oral, written, or televisual -- each comes with its own set of limitations. That is to say, "the form excludes the content." Some ideas simply can't be expressed by certain forms, which should be obvious to anybody who has tried to write a sarcastic email without the appropriate smiley face at the end.
Postman then guides the reader through a history of communication, laying out eras where oral, print, or visual communicative forms were culturally dominant. For Postman, the print era (or "age of typography"), which he dates roughly from the Reformation to the 19th century, is when rational argument reached its pinnacle.Read more ›