This is a comprehensive summary of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A book about a world yet to be infiltrated by the Internet. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman explains how the cultural transition from a print-based society to a television-obsessed one negatively influences our lives. The author traces how our civilization went through several stages of communication – from mostly oral, to typographic-minded, and now we mainly being visually entertained. This cultural shift is not only changing the message presented by modern media, but also changing people – predisposes them not to exercise their main skill, thinking.
The Core Idea:
The fall of the written word as a way to practice our ability to think and the accompanying rise of the visual media have lasting negative effects on the human mind. Television made everything entertaining. Thus, transformed us into passive egoists who are no longer interested in taking charge of our own lives. Our minds are now preoccupied with irrelevant facts about people we don’t really know. Dazzled by the endless abyss of joy, we get stuck in a virtual-reality-like state. No longer seeking the truth, but seeking to feed our undying appetite for distractions and desire for amusement.
- The consumption of words, not images, boosts your intelligence because symbols tinker with your imagination.
- With their simplicity, TV shows project false, but very convincing narrative about what we should do with our time. Namely, that we should have fun all the time.
- The pleasurable diversions circling have created a citizenry too distracted to notice the oppressing servitude.
7 Key Lessons from Amusing Ourselves To Death:
- Lesson #1: The Written Word Increases Intelligence
- Lesson #2: The Shift from Print to Television Changed How We Interpret Ideas
- Lesson #3: The Invention of The Telegraph Made Relevance Irrelevant
- Lesson #4: Modern Media Created Pseudo-Context to Put Irrelevance to Use
- Lesson #5: Television Attacks Literature Culture With Incoherence and Triviality
- Lesson #6: TV Undermines Real Education by Promoting Effortless Education
- Lesson #7: Our Love Affair With Television Turned Our Culture Into a Burlesque
Lesson #1: The Written Word Increases Intelligence
For years, consuming words on paper was the main focus of our society. But not simply randomly generated words that have little to teach. Words that were carefully arranged. Considered for days, months, years. The author of a book, any book, took the time to think deeply about what he wanted to say and only then to put it on a piece of paper.
The importance of our ability to read and to write well is described in two examples shared in the book.
First, in a conversation between a student and his professors.
After defending his dissertation orally, the student asked why his printed document is more important than his speech.
The answer by the scholars took an elaborate matter. They explained that when you write, you take more time to investigate a subject. You reflect on what you want to say. You check different sources. You edit and contemplate. In contrast, when you speak, you’re unable to make complex conclusions on a certain topic. They said, “The written word endures, the spoken word disappears.” And that was just part of the story. The conclusion was that the student also wants a written confirmation about his performance as an oral one will be just a rumor.
The second example of the importance of reading is an explanation of what is required of a person to read a text.
When you read, you have to forcefully immobilize your body. You have to sit and concentrate. You have to pay attention to the shapes that are presented on the piece of paper that we call words, understand them as a whole, and distinguish the meaning of what is said. And lastly, as the author writes, “you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument.”
Sadly, nowadays, people are less and less interested in consuming written words not to mention create them. The print culture has long given way to a culture that’s more interested in moving pictures.
The written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives us, not the familiar remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned-up halluclnation.” Northrop Frye
Lesson #2: The Shift from Print to Television Changed How We Interpret Ideas
Print is no longer a key player in our lives. Our ideas, the information we gather, and how we think is shaped by what we see on TV. We are now a society heavily influenced by the moving picture.
At first, this may not seem so bad. After all, the TV screen is able to visualize what a printed book can only explain. A story in a movie can be told in just a few minutes, while the same story in a book may require an hour of reading.
But exactly this simplicity is the thing that’s polluting society and crippling our future generations. TV shows focus on using plain language – at least if they want to stay afloat – and they don’t make any attempt to make the viewer think. This is done for a reason, of course. After all, television shows are after your attention. They don’t want to lose you. They want to have you for as long as they can. The simple message and the constant changes in the scene – from the usual program to commercials – acts as a highly entertaining loop. Everything is plain and easy to understand. That’s why programs are highly addictive and unfortunately, not intellectually stimulating.
The other thing that changed in our society when print was replaced by TV is the shift from ideas to looks.
Previously, we used to judge people by what they have written – by their ideas. Now, we focus heavily on how they look.
Think about an important figure from the past. Let’s take Albert Einstein for example. What comes to your mind? You’ll most probably imagine his goofy picture with his tongue out but also remind yourself that he’s the person who invented the theory of relativity.
Now, imagine someone who is famous in our current time. What comes to your mind? We’ll probably think of a celebrity and where she/he lastly appeared on TV and how she/he looked. What she/he created? No so important.
This basically means that we primarily evaluate people not by what they can do, imagine, invent, but by how they look. This completely changes our desires and motives.
Creating, inventing, and thinking is displaced by simply looking good.
The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television… For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words.” Neil Postman
Lesson #3: The Invention of The Telegraph Made Relevance Irrelevant
A remarkable thing happened when the telegraph was invented and when people were able to communicate with distant places in a manner of minutes.
The world was no longer separated by borders. A new era was born. The era of the global neighborhood. Or as the author put it, “telegraphy would make one neighborhood of the whole country.”
But after everyone was connected. After every city was able to communicate with a distant one, something else changed in our society. Things that were not important to us before become the main topics of discussion. We become a context-free information culture.
The information you were getting was no longer related to your existence. After all, why would you want to know what’s the weather in Mumbai or what celebration they are doing there if you’re from Texas? Still, the public was ecstatic. People we eager to share what new they have “learned” today even if it wasn’t completely related to their lives.
Information become a commodity. An item that was traded.
Previously, before the telegraph, everything someone gained as data from the local community or the local newspaper was somehow related to his life. After the creation of the telegraph, and later when modern media appeared and an avalanche of facts engulfed society, still everything seems to matter to us. Even things that had nothing to do with our existence. People began to collect irrelevant facts to spark conversations with other people.
This free flow of information became all-consuming. And it continues to be so today. As each show and each individual news story is completely different and totally unrelated to the previous one. We gain a lot of knowledge, but the knowledge we gain is not very valuable to us. Yet, we’re eager to expose ourselves to more of these irrelevant facts.
The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.” Neil Postman
Lesson #4: Modern Media Created Pseudo-Context to Put Irrelevance to Use
After the world was submerged by an endless stream of facts that were not related to each other. To connect the dots, and to add meaning to all the events happening in the world. Modern TV programs created something insidious – pseudo-context.
The crossword puzzle maybe not so interesting to you today but it was a hit when it first appeared inside the newspapers a couple of years ago. Also, it was the first successful attempt to deceive society.
Finally, what you knew about Western civilization or about a city that is nowhere near where you live was practical. What you gathered from watching TV was useful to solve a totally irrelevant puzzle inside a newspaper that’s full of facts that are equally unnecessary for your life.
But again, the crowd loved it. And this was just the beginning.
Later, TV shows that revolved around knowing irrelevant facts about all kinds of stuff emerged (Think Trivial Pursuit or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). They were also a hit.
This was a new form of entertainment. It was partly educational, partly inspirational. People were now eager to learn more things so they can compete with the TV host. And that’s where things started to get seriously wrong.
Aside from the fact that endless entertainment was available on television, there was something else lurking. Something that was completely changing what we want and what we aim to get from life. People were beginning to live in this delusional state. They focused their entire lives around collecting fragmented pieces of information about things that can later serve them no purpose. The goal? To appear smart in front of others and also potentially enter TV shows that promised little money in exchange for their hard efforts
Instead of specialization, TV programs advertised generalization.
The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful “Trivial Pursuit.” In one form or another, each of these supplies an answer to the question, “What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?” And in one form or another, the, answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? for entertainment? to amuse yourself, in a game?” Neil Postman
Lesson #5: Television Attacks Literature Culture With Incoherence and Triviality
Unlike books, the core goal of the broadcast media is not educational, it’s not even informational. The core goal of TV distribution is to make money by entertaining people. It’s an arena of show business.
We’re captured by the moving image and we stay there because everything is designed to keep us inside for as long as possible.
In time, a certain connection between the viewer, us, and the box that’s taking a central position in our homes is formed that’s extremely hard to break.
And that’s just part of the process.
This is how modern media manages to turn us into mediocre consumers:
First, to watch a show, you don’t need to possess any extra skills. Even a child can enjoy a show designed to be watched by adults. Secondly, over the years, the average length of a single frame shot on TV decreased to around 3.5 seconds. This way our eyes never rest. Every couple of seconds we are introduced to a new point of view so we can keep watching. And thirdly, there is nothing serious about watching television. Everything, even programs that try to sound formal and talk about important things, cannot be taken seriously.
To help us picture all of the above, the author prompts us to imagine a news broadcast.
Since there is so much going on in the world, news directors are forced to keep every story short and to the point. But that’s not all. Directors intentionally mix bad news with good news. For example, we can be watching a devastating car crash this moment but just a few seconds later, we’ll be introduced to the latest update around a celebrity which immediately demolishes our previous feelings of grief.
And that’s just part of the strategy. The setting of a show, the constant interruptions for a commercial break, the vivid images, the flashing lights. Everything is created to entertain and capture the eye. Everything is distracting. And the reason behind all of this is simple – to hold our attention for as long as possible so they can make more money.
The contrast with the previous dominant literature epistemology is huge. While reading requires you to do only one thing for a long period of time – including thinking – television shows are strickly devoted to supplying the viewer with completely the opposite: amusing distractions stripped from any context.
That’s why literacy is steadily declining and triviality is dominating.
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television… That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.” Neil Postman
Lesson #6: TV Undermines Real Education by Promoting Effortless Education
Educational television shows encourage people to love television, not education.
When Sesame Street first appeared on modern television, schools and parents were finally convinced. The public concluded that the flat screen can now serve as a way to transmit a message that can help children learn stuff – not simply stare at isolated messages.
But that was just a diversion from reality. That’s why modern media is so insidious. By conveying a seemingly noble message, folks are unable to see what’s behind the curtains. That in reality, such shows discourage people from actually thinking about education or about complicated problems.
Since everything is presented in a form of entertainment, one starts to think that everything should be entertaining. Math, physics, even words, should always spark joy. But later in life, we realize that this is not the case. And we realize this harsh truth the hard way.
Education should interest people to explore more and to learn more. To inspire them to think rigorously and to think deeply. Processes, that take time and that are not always fun and amusing.
Modern media, however, destroys all of these ethical disciplines that are required for a person to grow and become a well-formed individual.
In the book, Neil Postman describes the three undermining commandments every television shows follows to create content:
- Thou shalt have no prerequisites: Every TV show should be created in such a way that no prior knowledge on the topic is required. After all, you don’t want viewers fleeting because they don’t know a certain fact about the topic. Every show is created with the presumption that the person watching doesn’t know anything about this. Thus, there is no entry barrier. Everything is seamless and entertaining.
- Thou shalt induce no perplexity: Confusing the viewer is the last thing you want to do. You must strip complexity and explain everything in simple words. The focus is on making viewers feel good, not making them grow intellectually.
- Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt: Arguments and reasoning is strictly forbidden. You should tell a story, not try to confuse. Images and sounds have to be carefully arranged to grab the attention of the viewer and hold it till the very end.
By following these rules, modern media is sabotaging us. Viewers start to believe that everything should be fun. And if it is not, it should be avoided.
Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.” Neil Postman
Lesson #7: Our Love Affair With Television Turned Our Culture Into a Burlesque
The book begins and ends with a comparison between George Orwell’s prediction of how our culture will evolve and Aldous Huxley’s one.
Orwell thought that our society will become dogmatic, ruled by evil oppressors, and books will be banned.
Huxley predicted completely the opposite. In his novel Brave New World, he visualizes a heaven-like world where endless entertainments amuse the citizens. There are no oppressors. Or at least, people are unable to see the tyrants because they are too busy enjoying what they, the oppressors, created. In this imaginary world, that’s actually pretty close to how our current reality feels, books are not banned simply because no one wants to read them.
The conclusion the author makes initially and then reinforces with facts in the text is that Huxley was right.
We worship an oppressor with a smiling face. One who feeds our brains with endless distractions. Our ability to think is clouded. Everything aims to entertain. And we’re sold on the idea that there is nothing to complain about.
Television (and nowadays social media) offers effortless existence. These channels transport you to a place where everything seems possible as long as you stay there. But while you sit comfortably on your couch and consume the latest show, slowly but surely, both your mind and life degenerates.
Is there a solution? Is there an antidote to cure our culture?
The author explains that a solution should be found in how we watch and how we consume media.
Instead of consuming everything that comes our way, we should take a reverse approach. Block all distractions and spend time watching, reading, and listening to things only related to what we want, not what’s imposed by society.
When you add context to what you consume and when you don’t give up on your ability to think, the fog will clear up.
For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” Neil Postman
- Understand how commercials influence us: To sell a product, marketers don’t focus too much on the product itself, they try to highlight what’s “wrong” with the buyer watching (e.g. weight loss pills commercials start with images of overweight bodies). Then, they try to present their offering as a good fit by portraying celebrities, fit bodies, calm music, etc. Or in other words, they force us to imagine a perfect world when their product is used. This way, marketers want to make us feel valuable when we consume their product. So, instead of product offering, we’re introduced to stories. In this sense, we don’t buy products, we buy concepts about becoming someone. Realizing that commercials focus on our flaws and on exploiting our inner desires can help you better understand yourself and how you are being attacked by modern media.
- Become media conscious: It’s almost impossible to completely separate yourself from the toxic reach of modern media. You can throw away your TV, block all the notifications, but you will still suffer the consequences of our drained by laughter culture. Irrelevant facts and endless distractions will somehow enter your life. What you can do to shield your mind from the outside noise is twofold: First, realize that constantly exposing yourself to entertainment is negatively influencing your life. Secondly, set goals before you consume. For example, if you want to learn more about investing, consume only content on this topic. Let this be your goal when you sit in front of the screen.
- Remove the irrelevance from your life: Probably about 80% of the information that flows freely around has nothing to do with your persona. Especially nowadays, in the social media world where you can connect with others instantly. We are bombarded with facts, irrelevant to us, about people we do not know. And yet, we seek to gain more information about strangers, especially famous strangers, because this way we start to copy them. And the more we copy them, the more we consume. And the more we consume, the more we distance ourselves from the things that really interest our inner self. We start to feel important because we behave like other people but we never allow ourselves to behave like us. To get out of this endless cycle of media consumption that only degenerates your existence. Whenever you catch yourself watching something, ask yourself the following question: “What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East?” The question is from the book. Undoubtedly, you’ll need to modify it depending on your situation. Still, the important thing to note here is how we let irrelevant facts feel important to us.
- Think deeply about important problems: The way television is constructed is to prevent you from thinking about the problems that exist in the world. A story about how our country needs better healthcare is quickly replaced by a shampoo commercial. The ever-changing screen discourages us from properly grasping the situation. In one moment there is this problem and in the next, everything is fine and people are washing their hair. Or in other words, as long as keep watching, everything will be OK. Of course, this is not the case. There are things that require deep thought and consideration. Things that you need to keep in your mind after you turn off the TV. Don’t let the brevity of а news story prevent you from thinking about something important.
- Use television as a lamp: In the book, the author tells a short story about a student who uses his television as a source of light to read a book because his lamp broke. With this, he wants to explain that a TV set should be considered as an item. An item that is used and then returned to its place. Like using a screwdriver or wrench. Sadly, this is not how we view the situation. Television and modern tech are now deeply integrated into our lives. We don’t use them and leave them sort to say, we kind of use them all the time. We have made entertainment an integral part of our lives. We think that we should be amused all the time without doing anything else. That’s the underlying message of the book. We mistakenly believe that we should have fun without doing anything else – lead an effortless existence. But that’s obviously not how we should approach life. There are still a lot of problems in the world. A lot of things you need to fix in your life. If you never go out of the virtual world, you’ll never completely grasp what’s happening. So, use your TV, don’t let it use you.
Commentary And My Personal Takeaway
Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman is a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. The message the author wanted to convey is more true today than it was nearly 40 years ago – when the book hit the shelves.
Entertainment, not desire for knowledge, moves the world now. This new dogma forces people who produce content for the television screen and online nowadays, to adapt their message to the media, not the media to the message. Put simply, we’re stripping away the context and making everything look attractive because that’s what people want. This is what sells now.
Unfortunately, this ongoing desire to make things simple and fun have devastating effects on society. The removal of the thinking barrier is making people less and less willing to exercise their thinking abilities. Moreover, since everything is trying to entertain us, we start to believe that we should be amused all the time and that nothing else should be considered important. Efforts should not be wasted unless we are extremely delighted in the end.
In great detail, Neil Postman explains how communication changed throughout the years and how we are now deceived by endless forms of entertainment. We are made to believe that we should be happy without any effort. That’s what modern media promotes.
And if you think that this book is outdated, just add social media in the text every time TV is mentioned. The only outdated thing is the prediction the author made about the consequences of watching television. Things are far worse than what Neil Postman described in the book when he first wrote it.
When you watch a show, when you play a game, you imagine that everything should be as easy as doing these things. No brain activity should be used to exist sort to speak. After all, you can enter a prolific state of laughter with just a push of a button, why bother doing something extra? That’s how modern media negatively influences our lives. That’s what the author wanted to warn us about 40 years ago.
The key takeaway:
TV removed all borders in the world but it also did something else – turned society into a trivial culture, preoccupied with irrelevant to our existence stories. By stripping away all the context, and presenting everything in an amusing way, TV discourages us from thinking about, well, everything. We start to live in a world where things are supposed to be fun and laughter should be the default state of our existence.
In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business.” Neil Postman
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.” Neil Postman
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” Neil Postman