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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Paperback – December 27, 2005
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20th Anniversary Edition The prophetic landmark work exploring the corrosive effects of electronic media on a democratic society... Television has habituated us to visual entertainment measured out in spoonfuls of time. But what happens when we come to expect the same things from our politics and public discourse? What happens to journalism, education, and religion when they too become forms of show business? When first written, Neil Postman's lively polemic was the first book to consider the way that electronic media were reshaping our culture. Now, with TV joined by the internet, cell phones, cable, and DVDs, Amusing Ourselves to Death carries even greater significance. Elegant, incisive, and terrifically readable, it's a compelling take on our addiction to entertainment.
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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.
Even today's elite students, who are certainly able to integrate lessons and perform well academically, have fallen to this malady; as David Brooks pointed out in his searingly accurate article, "The Organization Kid," (Atlantic Monthly, April 2001) top-notch students no longer attempt to build any sort of moral or philosophical structure from their studies; a life lived in a context, makes no sense to the student who has grown up watching the decontextualized television screen.
It is extremely important that today's Americans take a close look at just what effects the television has had on themselves and their children; Postman's work is dead on target. We have moved, as a nation, from those who seek entertainment as a means to an end (most particularly, rest between productive work), to those who seek entertainment as an end in itself. And, as Huxley realized in Brave New World, this is the undoing of Western civilization - a prosaic fade away into an entertained oblivion. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it in "The Hollow Men," "This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but a whimper."
While Postman does an excellent job of discussing the "evolution" of language and how we've gone from the spoken word as the primary means of storytelling and knowledge to the written word and ultimately to the "television era," he tends to take an extremist approach to television. His demonization of the television industry at many times takes such a one-sided view of the effect of media on society that it is hard to take him seriously in many instances.
Take, for example, his statement on page 159, where he states "Television serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse... We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. "The A-Team" and "Cheers" are no threat to our public health. "60 Minutes," "Eye-Witness News," and "Sesame Street" are." Perhaps it was the era in which Postman wrote that prompted this particular statement. That notwithstanding, to accuse programs such as "Sesame Street" as being a "threat" to public health is nothing short of ludicrous and extreme.
Moreover, on page 87, Postman rants, "All subject matter is presented as entertaining... No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement or pleasure." And while Sesame Street may have an "entertaining" format, to say that news coverage of legitimate events are there for our "amusement or pleasure," is completely ridiculous. Personally, I never saw anything "amusing" or "pleasurable" about the 9/11 news coverage. Matt Quayle, in his article "The Method of the Medium is in Motion" does a great job of taking Postman's general "theme" and more correctly applying it to modern society. His article is definitely worth a read.
Lastly, it is my opinion that Postman could have gotten his entire point across in 80 pages, as opposed to the 163 pages it took him in this book. I found many instances where he simply drones on and on, and uses excessive "wordiness" and repeats his point in two or three different ways. Personally, it seemed to me like he simply liked hearing himself "speak." Obviously, I never knew the man personally, but he seemed to be trying to claim some moral or intellectual superiority by his wordiness, as if to say, "Look at me! I'm not a product of the media brainwashing plot. I can use fancy words." Perhaps that wasn't his intent, but it's definitely the vibe I got off of the book.
In summary, while I feel that Postman's book has points of merit, he went overboard on many of his remarks about media exposure. Perhaps I feel this way because I live in a 21st century society, and I see more clearly how technology has evolved to become an invaluable tool for spreading and gaining knowledge. And although I agree that media has the capacity to make mindless drones out of its denizens, I do not feel that the demonization of the media as Postman has depicted is entirely fair. But like I said, this is all just my opinion.