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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Paperback – December 27, 2005
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“I can’t think of a more prophetic, more thoughtful, more necessary – and yes, more entertaining – book about media culture.” –Victor Navasky, National Book Award-winning author of The Art of Controversy
“All I can say about Neil Postman’s brilliant Amusing Ourselves to Death is: Guilty As Charged.” –Matt Groening, Creator of The Simpsons
“As a fervent evangelist of the age of Hollywood, I publicly opposed Neil Postman’s dark picture of our media-saturated future. But time has proved Postman right. He accurately foresaw that the young would inherit a frantically all-consuming media culture of glitz, gossip, and greed.” –Camille Paglia
“A brilliant, powerful, and important book. This is an indictment that Postman has laid down and, so far as I can see, an irrefutable one.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
About the Author
Neil Postman (1931–2003) was chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University and founder of its Media Ecology program. He wrote more than twenty books.
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Clearly, the people then were different from the people now in terms of mainstream intelligence. The reason, Postman argues, is that the people in Dickens' era were children of "The Age of Typography," and the people today (us) are the children of "The Age of Show Business," or "The Age of Television." Reading was life to people in the older days; watching television is life to us now. And television, however entertaining, cannot be anything but sheer junk because it works through images, sensationalism, and emotional gratification. Writing, on the other hand, requires patience, detachment, memory, and reason. The result is that we are dumber than our ancestors. Incredulous? Pick up the book and let Postman prove it to you.
This book was written in 1985, but don't be fooled; it still wields enormous relevance today -- The chapter titled, "Peek-a-Boo-World" as well as the "Information-to-action-ratio" theory outlined in it are particularly pertinent regarding the modern-day use of the internet, especially with portable laptops, tablets, and cellphones. With those gadgets, we have become, in short, a nation buried in triviality, as Postman predicted. Furthermore, television viewership today has not decreased with the rise of the internet, iphones, and such. On the contrary, studies show that we still watch as much television as before, despite the alarmingly rising rate of electronic use. In this book, Postman focuses on politics, religion, education, and the news. These, he says, are serious topics that are downgraded to mere amusement because television, by design, works by making everything amusing. In effect, we come to expect everything in life to be entertaining when, in actuality, some things must be endured. Again, I urge you to read this book carefully. I've read it four times. It's ideas have allowed me to wean myself away from television and on to typography. Let it have the same effect on you.
There are so many excellent things here that I don't think I can really summarize effectively. Here are a few things that remain stuck in my mind: the difference between the typographic mind and the television mind. Postman foretold critically what we are now seeing physiologically--that modern media has changed the way we think. (See Prensky's work for applications to the rising of computers and gaming.) Groundlings could stand for 3 - 4 hours watching a Shakespearean play. Citizens could spend 6 - 8 hours listening to Lincoln and Douglas debate issues for a Senate seat. Today, even our most "well-read" intellectual would find such things bordering on the intolerable. Our minds simply are trained to handle such things anymore.
In place of debate, we have talking points, though Postman doesn't use this term. But when he describes the televised "debate" over the then-controversial TV movie The Day After, which I remember but had never considered as critically as Postman, he begins to show that TV simply doesn't allow for true debate by its nature. Television makes it nearly impossible for real engagement between people and extended discussion of issues.
Instead, we are left with "news" that isn't news as all. It is either an entertainment or it is a filler with no direct impact on our lives, or both. Postman has a fascinating discussion of how this new form of "news" arose with the arrival of the telegraph and has exploded in the world of television. He shows how we have become inundated by "flashes" of things that have no real impact on our lives and make us aware of things we can do little or nothing about: famines, floods, foreign elections, distant wars, etc. It comes at us moment by moment, day after day, and distracts us from real engagement with things about which we should be concerned.
Postman also deserves credit for a few things beyond these very engaging criticisms of our modern culture. First, he doesn't disparage TV. He understands that junk is what TV is about and he's OK with that on some level. He simply wants us to be aware that TV is simply not capable of working on a higher plane and we shouldn't think it is. Second, it is amazing how Postman's ideas have become more, not less relevant, in a world of 24-hour cable, the internet, and world-wide cell phone access. Postman has really nailed something important here and this is a book that should be read by everyone.