Tracey's Reviews > Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
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Dec 21, 2007

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bookshelves: libraryread, pop-sociology
Read in July, 2004

This book had been on my To Read list for quite some time; a mention in The Geography of Nowhere was the final spur to check it out from the library.

Postman takes a look at how our perception of the world is affected by the medium in which we receive information about it; contrasting the Age of Print (the 18th & 19th centuries) with our current age - starting with the telegraph and continuing through to the computer. Obviously, the main focus is television, as it is the most ubiquitous information source in today's society. His main concern is the United States, but as American programming has pervaded the world, his points may be equally valid elsewhere.

Postman posits that our current access to information, especially when presented through images and video, has lulled us into a complacent world, much like that of Brave New World, as opposed to the then-current concern regarding the dystopia of 1984:
"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared were that there would be no reason to ban a book. For there would be no one who wanted to read one." (from the Foreword)

He uses the telegraph as the first example of an attack on written and personal discourse through irrelevance, impotence and incoherence; information about situations that do not directly concern us, over which we have no control and quite often missing important details. Photography converted us into a society where seeing, as opposed to reading, was believing - taking the static image of a moment in time as a constant truth.

In Postman's opinion, information overload, presented in an entertaining format and broken into 8-minute segments, has lured us away from the active seeking of knowledge and understanding. He examines broadcast reporting, shows like Sesame Street and even televangelists, as examples of how news, education and religion have been bent and twisted to fit the format expected by the television viewer, much to their detriment.
"The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world". (page 106)

Postman covers of the history of the transfer of information between people in an interesting way, with the appropriate amount of detail; this in itself makes for a worthwhile read. His philosophical conclusions are difficult to argue with, especially in the arena of politics:
"All that has happened is that is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference." (p 111)

Unfortunately, he doesn't offer much in the way of solutions: "Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?" (page 156) He believes that getting an early a start as possible in educating the public into how our outlook is affected by television and other mass media is the only way to deal with this problem. I've often thought it would be interesting to teach kids how to watch commercials with a critical eye; dissecting the messages as a way of introducing critical thinking.

Recommended to anyone who questions the permeation of television in the American society.

Quotes

"Television has achieved the status of "meta-medium - an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well." p 78

"There is no question that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials." p 86

"The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether." p. 87
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booklady This is one of my all time favorites as well! Reading this book saved my family! Your view is fabulous! God bless! booklady


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