A.J.'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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's review
Feb 16, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-politics
Read from February 16 to 27, 2010

Let's have a chat, you and I. We can talk about anything you want. I won't be good for everything, but if you like movies, politics, books, religion, philosophy, or something like that, we should have a pretty good time. I'm almost certain we can find some common ground. If all else fails we can bitch about the weather (it's been particularly hostile this winter where I live) or how much we're looking forward to spring, all the while watching the thermometer creep steadily upwards. But wait a second. Something's off. Did you catch it? We definitely have a problem. The problem is I'm not really talking to you. In fact, I have no idea who you are, or that you're reading this. I'm not even addressing anyone in particular. Maybe I have an idea, like Stephen King's 'Constant Reader', who is a kind of imaginary friend that can step outside my creative mind and receive things with a measure of objectivity. Maybe you're sitting at your computer now with a feeling of being outside yourself or this series of printed words; even still, your eyes are racing across the screen, seeing but never really noticing the letters themselves. You're doing this because you've had quite a bit of training. What I'm doing right now is communicating through a medium called writing, and you, because of your place in history and culture, are able to receive it––and, I'd wager, craft a response of your own.

Neil Postman is a breed of academic known as a 'cultural critic.' I like to think of him as a noticer. His job, such as it is, is what all of us should be doing but rarely take the time to bother. He thinks about the consequences of the mediums our culture embraces. And there are always consequences, for better or worse. In the 20th century a duo of prophets published their dystopian visions. Their names were Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Orwell was the more popular of the two. His was a world where an all-pervasive force known as Big Brother would go to no end to ban books, control perception, and modify history. What Huxley feared, on the contrary, "was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one" (xix). Orwell dreaded the deprivation of information; Huxley dreaded the inundation of it. Postman argues that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

To say that this is a book about the worthlessness of television is an oversimplification. It is a powerful critique about what happens when an entire culture accepts a new technology and allows it to dominate every facet of conversation without ever stopping to question whether the medium in question is suited to it. For the first couple centuries of America's existence, print was the dominant form of political, philosophical, and religious discussion. Everyone read, and not just for pleasure. Political debates were not series of three minute exchanges pertaining to national elections, but hours-long social events that (unthinkably) were held for mere Senate races. The implication, of course, is that even the common man was intelligent enough and so well versed on the issues that he or she would be able to handle two hours argument followed by three hours of rebuttal. Who were these people? Or better yet, what the hell happened to them?

The answer, Postman wagers, is a long string of technological innovations that changed the way we handle public discourse forever. First was the telegraph, which taught us that information was a curiosity, and could be gotten from anywhere in the world. No need to trouble yourself about local affairs. Now we have the news of the day, always changing, never requiring much reflection. Add to this the still photo, the radio, and finally television, and you have a journey which has led us to the point where we are literally amusing ourselves to death. What happens to a society when all forms of political, religious, and even educational discussions are made to be nothing but entertainment? When all news is a collection of soundbites, and appetite for complexity is whittled away in favor of the quick and simple––and most entertaining––alternatives.

I have a soft spot for this book. When a high school teacher handed me a copy, it was the first thing I'd ever read that taught me how to think as opposed to what to think. And to think is to question. It's beyond apparent that our culture is a sea of apathy driving a deluge of irrelevance. You don't need to look any further than public schools. The question Postman asks is what will happen to a society when its members have been raised with the expectation of constant entertainment regardless of the subject? Huxley's answer is farfetched but strangely chilling. Slavery doesn't need to come with chains, and the prophets are mostly right when they say that if fascism came back it would do so with a smiling face.

I can't recommend this book enough. Whether you agree or disagree, how much or how little, contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of mediums of communication is valuable. When we began I admitted that I'm not really talking to you, but I imagine you've probably forgotten by now, all too used to the charms and minor spellweaving of the written word. But words aren't just words, and how they come to you informs some aspect of their power and importance. If you doubt, ask yourself how much different life has become since the device you're reading this review on came into existence. It has changed everything from business to education to politics. No value judgement is needed right away, but we never do harm by employing our ability to think and question too often.

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message 1: by Tracy (new)

Tracy "If you doubt, ask yourself how much different life has become since the device you're reading this review on came into existence."

Well written and quite effective (she replies from her iPod).

Heading over to my To-Read shelf...

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