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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.
His primary criticism of the "Age of Show Business" is that all discussion, debate, and learning has been subjugated to a 30-second spot. No one has time for lengthy discussions or delving into the depths of difficult discussions or learning. You can't argue that he was spot on in much of his criticism. We don't even like phone calls anymore because they require too much commitment and too much time. We've defaulted to text messages.
While I read the book I kept thinking of his points in terms of our politics and our news coverage. What is "outrageous" or "epic" only remains so for about 24-48 hours until something else comes along. If you are a politician who gets "caught" by the media in something negative, your best hope is for something else to grab the spotlight quickly. The arguments in the political arena these days are only a millimeter deep - no one wants to spend the time and energy to do the hard work of working through an issue completely. You get the point and it was Postman's point: everything has to fit into a 30-second spot, and nothing is related - everything is independent of everything else. Of course, that's not reality, but that's the reality that we've created.
Postman bases much of his discussion on a comparison between the predictions of Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World," both written over 70 years ago. He believes that Orwell was wrong in the sense that he saw the control of a culture by a totalitarian and big brother government. Huxley's point was that culture would be controlled, not by an exterior force, but voluntarily through conditioning and psychological manipulation. Postman's point is that Huxley was closer to what we are seeing today in that rather than evaluating how technology (specifically TV) affects change in culture, we are happily and ignorantly marching into a brave new world by amusing ourselves to death. I will say that Postman makes a brief mention of computer technology in this book, and he believed it was irrelevant and useless technology. Boy did he get that part wrong!
Definitely an interesting read and worth your time if you are interested in considering how media or technology affects culture. I've read Orwell's "1984" but after reading Postman's book, my next read will be "Brave New World" by Huxley. My take away from "Amusing Ourselves to Death" is that I want to remember that there is more to issues than the 30 seconds that they get on the news, Facebook, or Twitter.