Trevor'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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Sep 01, 14

bookshelves: psychology, social-theory, media

This really is a book that needs to be read. I’m going to start with the quote that got me to read this book:

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. 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. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. 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. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

Both of my daughters have had to read Huxley and Orwell in high school. I didn’t read either of them when I was in high school, which now I think about it is very strange. Anyway, both of my daughters have told me that when their teachers asked the class about Huxley’s Brave New World which of the two worlds available in that book they would choose to live in, virtually everyone picked the brave new world with drugs and pneumatic women. I guess that is hardly surprising, except, of course, that Huxley’s point does seem to be that one should at least question a world in which we amuse ourselves to the point of being incapable of thinking.

This book could easily have been a manifesto calling on all Americans to unplug their television sets and, in true rock star fashion, throw them out of the window. But that isn’t what is being called for here. Postman’s objective is seemingly much more modest (although it is interesting to note even this modest objective is no where near having been achieved). He wants people to reflect on how the new technologies of media presentation (particularly television) are fundamentally changing what we take to be ‘news’ and what we take to be ‘informed debate’, particularly informed political debate. For example, we may live in an age where a black man can become president, but do you imagine for a minute that an overweight man of any colour could?

About a year ago, I guess, I read a book called Fooled by Randomness which advised people to not read newspapers every day for financial information as the daily swings in the stock market were essentially random and therefore meaningless and so the explanations for these swings provided by the newspapers were only more so. This has had me thinking about the value of most of what I read in newspapers now. In fact, I’m finding it increasingly hard to read newspapers. This book is set to make this problem of mine even worse.

He gives a fascinating account of the development of news since the telegraph and how the telegraph in particular changed the world. Yes, there are all of the standard points about the telegraph as a boon – it made the world a much smaller place and helped create the global village. But what is really interesting is how the telegraph turned ‘news’ into something that was no longer local or of immediate relevance to the lives of those reading it, but rather into a series of ‘facts’. He talks about people in the United States learning of Queen Adelaide’s whooping cough…

I’ve never studied ‘media studies’, but I think it would be a very worthwhile thing to do, particularly if students of media studies look at the effect various ‘media’ – print, television, telegraph, internet – have on what ‘content’ is to be presented.

Naturally, there is quite a bit of discussion on the fact (and the implications of the fact) that television is a ‘visual’ medium. What is more interesting is that it is a medium that gets viewers to see the world as essentially chaotic, discontinuous and without context or history. He makes the interesting point that you can come to a program (any program) on television without any prerequisite knowledge. Now, think about that for a moment. Days of Our Lives can run for decades and yet you can start watching it for the first time tomorrow and there will be virtually no ‘costs’ to you for doing so. He points out that this is true of any and every program on television – even ‘educational’ programs like Cosmos The issues with television presenting us with a passive interaction with the world are only one part of the problem; this issue of context free, prerequisite free information is at least as troubling.

He also talks about Lincoln having debates that lasted, and were attended and listened to by interested voters, for seven hours – three hours a piece for each side to present their case and an hour’s rebuttal by the side that went first. In a world where the sound bite is the ‘reasoned argument of choice’ of our politicians, talk of an era where people expected sustained, logical discussion on a topic seems almost bizarre. We think about a world where anyone would spend seven hours of their own time listening to political debates as incomprehensible. In a world at least a hundred times more complex and frightening than Lincoln’s – you know, they didn’t even have nuclear weapons way back then – the fact we are not even prepared to send seven minutes on issues of real import is very troubling.

His discussion of the effect on us of news segments lasting only 30 seconds (virtually despite the importance of the item) and the fact that it is impossible to focus on any particular news item for more than the allotted 30 seconds due to the fact that no sooner have you become aware of it than the next one is upon you crowding it out, means the news on television ends up a series of items of trivia which have no direct importance to the lives of anyone watching it.

His discussion of religious television is worth the cost of the book alone. You might expect, coming from me, that I mean he is an atheist. He isn’t. But he makes some very interesting points, not just about the fact that religion on television rarely quotes Jesus as saying things about rich men, camels or eyes of needles (which I can only assume was added by some Commie to the Bible over the actual text which obviously said ‘Jesus wants you to be rich’). But he also points out that a religious experience requires you to step out of the profane world and enter a world that is, in at least some sense, holy. However, television requires, and perhaps does not even allow, any such transition to transcendence. I think this is a fascinating idea. He also points out that televangelists are actually the stars of these shows, and God is just someone that gets constantly mentioned, but is never actually present. God’s absence is particularly evident given that this is a medium dominated by images. It is hard not to agree with Postman that given the second commandment about not making graven images, televangelism is probably blasphemous as it is Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Co making graven images of themselves – that is, after all, the central point of the medium.

This book is a quick read, but no less important for that. In one of his previous books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, he says one of the main objectives of teaching is to provide students with a bullshit detector. His own detector is highly tuned, sensitive and virtually unfailing.
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Quotes Trevor Liked

Neil Postman
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

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. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

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. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business


Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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message 1: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard So, to continue from what I was saying over at my review of Johnson's book:

I think Johnson's book (Everything Bad is Good for You) is only somewhat related to the argument Postman (and Mander) were trying to make. Johnson doesn't really attempt to argue that the media makes society better, just that it makes us somewhat more clever in unexpected ways.

This is still consistent with the possibility that mass media doesn't present discussions or debate as broadly as it once, perhaps, did. Once upon a time newspapers were the media of choice for popular debate on important matters. Before newspapers, I doubt there was a medium for "popular" discussion -- only the elites were invited. And then the forum switched to television, and apparently some elites decided that the reduced depth of the discussion was catastrophic. But that presumes that newspapers engendered informed popular opinion -- but did it?

Certainly the depth was there. Newspapers were both popular entertainment as well as the media in which the elites were informed of the complex issues of the day. But I think it is a stretch to say that the masses were reading the same articles as the elites, or even the same newspapers. It seems likely that they were absorbing dumbed-down version of the debate in dumbed-down newspapers.

When television came along, newspapers started dying because there really wasn't much need for newspaper-as-mass entertainment. But since television didn't do the deep stuff, the world was coming to an end.

Or not. As long as the forums in which the elites argue with each other over important matters are open to eavesdropping by anti-elites and elite wannabes, we're probably safe from cultural catastrophe. And the internet (long before McLuhan's and Postman's and Mander's original theses were nailed to various doors) has probably made that easier.

I still might have to read this -- Postman's conception of the "Public Discourse" might have nuances and implications that evade my argument -- but frankly, I can't see any big problem here.

It's like that article in the Atlantic: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (or similar attacks). Just because things are changing doesn't mean they are getting worse.

Sidebar: Long ago I swore I read something discussing "the declension paradox", which detailed why every society sees the past as a golden age and the future in decline, yet somehow each generation seems to feed, clothe, house and education more people. It even included quotations from ancient Greeks (Romans?) at how the youth of the day were so disrespectful. But Google whispers to me that no social theory exists under such a name.

Whenever I read something that decries how terrible things are getting, I strap on my guns.


message 2: by Monica (new)

Monica Trevor, Huxley is pretty far up on my "to read" list. Your review only encourages me, but I'm currently engrossed in Latin American topics for the foreseeable future. I've saved a word doc to read after I've read Brave New World.


Trevor Richard, I think you are right about every generation thinking it was the best generation and that every following generation is degenerate. I also think you are right in that there have always been circuses, and the elites have always had their own forums and that these are more open today than ever before to the curious. A lecturer I once had used to enjoy telling us about some Egyptian who in one of our earliest texts is supposed to have complained that there was nothing left for young writers to write, as the ‘ancients’ had already taken all of the best stories.

I have been finding that I really only learn anything worth knowing from extended prose, from books. It is hard to say the last time I felt I learnt something worthwhile from any other medium. Radio is obviously better than TV – but even newspapers are filled with mindless trash. I just don’t care enough about the endless trivia of the modern media to be bothered. I think the internet is a fascinating case, as it is both interactive and a bit of everything else. I’ve no idea how that will affect communications or democracy over coming years – but it would be nice to think that people will increasingly feel more empowered and given a voice, so that news might be more something they ‘do’ rather than something they ‘watch’.

Postman quotes Marx at one point from The German Ideology that once the alphabet had been ‘discovered’ epic poetry was no longer conceivable as an art form. I think there is something in this. The ‘death’ of poetry today is also something that has long been prophesised, even if it never quite arrives. Poetry is something we seem to have handed back to the elites, I guess. Much of his argument is that certain media require information to be structured in particular ways and these then affect the message. He does not say, so much, that these new ways we are forced to think are good, bad or indifferent in themselves, but rather that we don’t really tend to think about what they mean before we adopt them. They are simply there and then we are forced to live with the consequences.

No, adopt is too strong a word. We don’t really adopt new technologies or new media as they are nearly completely unavoidable. His point seems to be that the Reformation would have been inconceivable without the printing press. An individual relationship with your God would be very difficult without a Bible of your own to refer to, and this implies a world of printing presses. He says that prior to this Catholicism was more a religion concerned with community and less with the ‘word’ of God – and this was because it was a culture based on something other than ‘texts’. He then says that America in particular was keen to be a highly literate society. There was a time (And in this he discusses Lincoln) when most discussions were spoken as if to be read like written text. Not like newspaper articles of later days or like our sound-bites, but more like texts. For Postman the telegraph began the decline as it started introducing ‘news’ that was quite divorced from the day to day concerns of those who read it. He makes an interesting point when he asks, when was the last time you changed something you would normally do on the basis of something you read in a newspaper? It is an alienating question designed to make us feel impotent in the face of a media which defines ‘interesting’ as anything but us and our immediate world.

I think there is little doubt that television is a very visual medium and that this affects our response to things we ‘see’ on it. He quotes Nixon at one point who felt that he lost against Kennedy on the basis of being sabotaged by a make-up artist. I have heard this line put before, that Nixon won the ‘radio’ debate, but lost the ‘television’ debate. How true it really is, is hard to say, but it is a frightening idea.

You are right to ask, “well, so what?” I haven’t thought through this nearly enough yet, but I do think that moving from a predominately text based world to a predominately image based one, particularly where our politics is increasingly ‘image driven’ and therefore superficial in virtually all senses, probably can’t be good.

Then again, his thesis is also clearly that the new media is purely about entertainment and that this is his main concern – that if IT can’t be entertaining IT has no right to exist. Clearly, one can believe knowledge should be engaging without requiring to be always entertained.

I will need to read more around this subject. Chomsky’s media model discussed in his Manufacturing Consent is an interesting companion piece here – though, how companionable they both would be is something that is up for debate.

Monica, I’m going to have to read it again at some stage too. It is a while since I read it and I do think Postman is right in that we are probably a little too prepared to drown ourselves in pleasures.



message 4: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Great review, Trevor. I've followed Postman for some years mostly because several of my very good friends at the college were his acolytes. It seems to me that all new technologies are feared for a variety of reasons and to them are ascribed the downfall of civilization. The telephone would destroy neighborhoods, etc. You should hear Postman on computers! I heard him at an anti-technology conference at Penn State about a decade ago just rip computers.

New technologies are always feared the most by those who 1.) have something to lose by their adoption, either financially or professionally, and 2.) have difficulty adapting to use of the new technology.

In the case of my friends, it's the latter. They have had great difficulty learning computer technology, so they condemn its use. They and Postman come out of the old "educational factory" model, i.e., the teacher stands and imparts his wisdom; the students sit and imbibe. This model is undergoing pressure from all sides to change and many of us who thrived in that lecture environment feel threatened. Postman not the least of them.

That being said, I think the generational debate over "the new" is a good one. It helps to keep what is valuable from the old while adapting the best of the new.

I have to agree with Richard's statement: "Whenever I read something that decries how terrible things are getting, I strap on my guns"




Trevor The only time he mentioned the computer in this one was in reference to education and attempts to make it 'teacher-proof'. You can imagine why he might be less than delighted.

In a past life I was an archivist and one of my favourite factoids was that there had been a demonstration / strike in Melbourne by the Hackney Carriage Union against the introduction of cars and the threat they presented to their profession. I think they were right to be concerned.


message 6: by Richard (last edited Apr 21, 2009 12:19PM) (new) - added it

Richard Trevor wrote: "Postman quotes Marx at one point from The German Ideology that once the alphabet had been ‘discovered’ epic poetry was no longer conceivable as an art form...."

Curious, then, that just last night I started reading Milton's Paradise Lost . And wasn't The Aeneid created long after the rise of writing? Marx had some astonishing socioeconomic insights, but was a arrogant idiot in many other ways. But, of course, oral forms of transmission exercised other parts of our brains, so it is the archetypal example of a change in medium altering how we think and perceive.

Trevor wrote: "You are right to ask, “well, so what?” ... I do think that moving from a predominately text based world to a predominately image based one, particularly where our politics is increasingly ‘image driven’ and therefore superficial in virtually all senses, probably can’t be good....."

Well, it might not be better, but is it necessarily worse? Obama has a splendid voice for oratory, whereas McCain sounded weak and frail. Churchill wrote wonderfully; sometimes a candidate manages to hire an incredible script writer. Voters are always manipulated, so is the visual medium of TV/WWW any worse? The fact that everyone can replay internet clips and examine transcripts at their leisure is certainly a win, but the vast majority aren't going to expend the effort and probably never did. People tend to vote their own personal gestalt and aren't swayed by these manipulations near as much as we fear except when they were already on the cusp of the received position.

Trevor wrote: "Then again, his thesis is also clearly that the new media is purely about entertainment and that this is his main concern – that if IT can’t be entertaining IT has no right to exist. Clearly, one can believe knowledge should be engaging without requiring to be always entertained...."

Well, that's a interesting argument. Television really is much more 'about' entertainment than newspapers are, so when he wrote this that would have been a telling point. But he should be thrilled with the internet, then -- right? While it does entertainment pretty well, it is arguably superior to any previous medium in its ability to transmit information with flexibility.

Sitting in front of a immobile CRT on a cheap and uncomfortable office-style chair is the biggest flaw to using the WWW (or computers in general), but that is transient. Once the epaper revolution kicks in and we have lightweight plastic displays with the flexibility and size of tabloid newsheet, we'll be much happier. I'm not sure even that will make it pleasant to read Kierkegaard, but it'll make it easier to hyperlink the text with annotations and commentary.


Eric_W wrote: "That being said, I think the generational debate over "the new" is a good one. It helps to keep what is valuable from the old while adapting the best of the new...."

Excellent point. If we don't debate the merits of each, we don't understand the gain or the loss. I'm a native technologist, so I tend to be very open to new stuff (although I really don't get manga...) and being forced to consider what older technologies might be better at is good for me.

You folks can re-read Huxley and Chomsky; I'm going to try to learn more about the Singularity. I'll try to keep you informed :-)


message 7: by Richard (last edited Apr 21, 2009 12:45PM) (new) - added it

Richard Trevor wrote: "The only time he mentioned the computer in this one was in reference to education and attempts to make it 'teacher-proof'. You can imagine why he might be less than delighted.

Well, yes, there is that. I spent a few years teaching "test prep" (i.e., graduate school entrance examines) for a private corporation, and commercial industry definitely has its eyes on education.

Here's why, in my analysis.
Once upon a time a doctor pretty much dealt with anything thrown at him or her. They were generalists, because the state of medicine hadn't yet developed the pressing need for specialization. Eventually specialists were required, but the generalists still ran the show, meaning they had to understand a great deal regarding when and how a specialist should be called in. Rip out that latter function and hand it to an administrator and you dramatically reduce costs by allowing each to focus on what they are good at. Administrators usually don't see the patients, of course, so the system loses empathy, and sometimes they become overly strict gatekeepers when they also are given cost control responsibility.

In education, most teachers have historically had to develop their own lesson plans, select their own books, probably even create their own examples and tests. They also must retain depth of knowledge sufficient to deal with questions, and be 'entertaining' enough to keep information transmission efficient.

Instead, development of materials should be separated from delivery. And delivery can be arranged in a hierarchy, with front-line instructors passing tough questions and clever-but-troublesome students up to specialists. This will provide huge cost savings, since those front-line instructors -- the largest component -- don't really need to be nearly as well educated.
When I realized this was the direction things were going, I found it rational but very, very distasteful. I'm a big fan of craftsfolk with a broad range of capabilities (that jack-of-all-trade, master-of-none thing), and losing yet another field to the bean counters and bureaucrats was a sour prospect. Yet more romance dissipates from the world.


Trevor wrote: "In a past life I was an archivist and one of my favourite factoids was that there had been a demonstration / strike in Melbourne by the Hackney Carriage Union against the introduction of cars and the threat they presented to their profession. I think they were right to be concerned...."

Hah. I was in the computer industry as it was transitioning from mainframes through minicomputers to personal computers, and we knew well the trope: the last buggy whip manufactures probably made the best buggy whips ever with unprecedented efficiency, but it couldn't save them. I wish my nephew had considered this before selecting airline pilot as his chosen career, but he was following his dream...


Trevor When I volunteered as an adult literacy teacher I remember one of my teachers (I did some post-grad thing around this) saying that where she worked teachers were no longer called teachers, but package delivery officers. Where education meets the post office...


message 9: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow I saw Derek Jensen speak a few weeks ago, and this thread reminds me of what he talked about. Bear with me, though, because the comparison might not be immediately obvious.

One of the stories he told (I believe it was from the book The Nazi Doctors) was about doctors in concentration camps during the holocaust. He was specifically not referring to Mengele, or other torturers and psychopaths. I have not read the book, but apparently it makes the point that there were many doctors that the prisoners did not consider monsters. The doctors had taken the Hippocratic Oath, and believed that they were fulfilling it. When they were presented with a patient, they would do what they considered to be in their power to keep that patient alive.

Derek Jensen pointed out that the problem in the doctors' behavior was not in the immediate interaction between the doctor and patient, but in the fact that they didn't question the larger structure of the concentration camps. They agreed to do the best they could with what they had, which basically is the foundation on which genocide happens.

Jensen related this story to the way the "developed" world looks at food. He said people used to get their food from rivers and forests, so if someone tried to destroy their rivers and forests, they would defend them to their death. Now we get our food from the supermarket and global trade, so we would defend those to our death, no matter what it means for our rivers and forests, not to mention other cultures.

That may be stretching the topic of this review, but it was a really powerful Brave New World kind of moment to me, realizing how I am sucked into this very powerful system because it is comfortable. I wonder if you would like Jensen, Trevor. I'm going to read The Culture of Make Believe soon, and I have every confidence it will be great.


Trevor I'll keep an eye out for him. I've not come across him before. I'll look forward to your review.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm going to read this next. Judging by the reviews it's one amazing book and I'm excited about reading it!


message 12: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Ah, yes. I'd "like" your review again, if I could :-)


Trevor God, that's where I got this stuff from... But I took the whooping cough stuff to be literally true, that this was literally the first transmission across the Atlantic, but I found out in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood that this was actually an ironic comment by someone that was, unfortunately, all too accurate.


message 14: by Bettie☯ (new)

Bettie☯ Does the title borrow from this: http://youtu.be/qS35PVNzpOk


message 15: by Bettie☯ (last edited Jun 29, 2012 06:22AM) (new)

Bettie☯ ETA - oops, I'll answer my own question, this book was originally 1985 so it must be the other way around.


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