Amusing Ourselves to Death: Summary and Review
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
Timeless and prescient. TV truly does “dumb you down” and Postman gives a biting argument as to why. Written in 1985, this book is even more true in the Internet era. “Amusing Ourselves to Death” gives the strongest argument I’ve seen as to why the written word is qualitatively different from other types of media, and why literacy is so foundationally important to being a well-informed person.
For another explanation of TV’s impact on politics, see also: The Charisma Hypothesis
Summary and Notes
1. The Medium Is the Metaphor
Postman extends the concept of the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although he disavows the association with Marshall McLuhan, going even further to note that, according to Ernst Cassirer:
Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.
2. Media as epistemology
Media is communication, not just the substrate to communication. Rhetoric is part of truth telling:
To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
Proverbs, the value of clichés vs. “serious language”
The first is drawn from a tribe in western Africa that has no writing system but whose rich oral tradition has given form to its ideas of civil law. When a dispute arises, the complainants come before the chief of the tribe and state their grievances. With no written law to guide him, the task of the chief is to search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served. You will recognize, of course, that this was largely the method of Jesus and other Biblical figures who, living in an essentially oral culture, drew upon all of the resources of speech, including mnemonic devices, formulaic expressions and parables, as a means of discovering and revealing truth. As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.
To people like ourselves any reliance on proverbs and sayings is reserved largely for resolving disputes among or with children. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” “First come, first served.” “Haste makes waste.” These are forms of speech we pull out in small crises with our young but would think ridiculous to produce in a courtroom where “serious” matters are to be decided. Can you imagine a bailiff asking a jury if it has reached a decision and receiving the reply that “to err is human but to forgive is divine”? Or even better, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? For the briefest moment, the judge might be charmed but if a “serious” language form is not immediately forthcoming, the jury may end up with a longer sentence than most guilty defendants.
The culture of truth depends on the paradigm we see it in; inductive reasoning (rationality) vs. the scientific method (trial and error)
scientific truth was best discovered and expressed by deducing the nature of things from a set of self-evident premises, which accounts for Aristotle’s believing that women have fewer teeth than men, and that babies are healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. Aristotle was twice married but so far as we know, it did not occur to him to ask either of his wives if he could count her teeth. And as for his obstetric opinions, we are safe in assuming he used no questionnaires and hid behind no curtains. Such acts would have seemed to him both vulgar and unnecessary, for that was not the way to ascertain the truth of things. The language of deductive logic provided a surer road.
Many of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing. Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle?
3. Typographic America
Postman gives an account of how extraordinary the literary culture of the early United States was, in its historical context (and even compared to the present context).
When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors, and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.
Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print them, lest thou shall be entrapped by them for all time.
The literacy rate for non-enslaved men was remarkably high:
there is sufficient evidence (mostly drawn from signatures) that between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent, quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time. […compared to…] the male literacy rate in seventeenth-century England did not exceed 40 percent.
Books were extremely highly consumed, imagine a book as widely read and impactful as “Harry Potter” except it was an essay about moral philosophy, egalitarian government, and political independence from Great Britain:
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, sold more than 100,000 copies by March of the same year. […] In 1985, a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population Paine’s book attracted. Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book published today would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well.” The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl.
Part of the reason America was so much more cohesive during this time was it was a lot less diverse. Women and enslaved people couldn’t vote. It is possible that another explanation for decreasing cohesion is increased diversity, but this is not addressed in this book.
4. The Typographic Mind
Imagine a presidential debate these days lasting for 7 hours:
On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.
Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. In the second debate, at Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln rose to answer Douglas in the following words:
It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.
The reason that reading is superior is because you can backtrack, pause, and interrogate the text privately, instead of thinking linearly or being spoon fed by TV or Radio (or YouTube or Facebook memes or podcasts), which presents no such opportunity for interrogation.
5. The Peek-a-Boo World
Before the telegraph, information was local, and travelled at 35mph. The telegraph created one global “national conversation”, but:
Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
The result is being bombarded with non-local information that is irrelevant to you and you have no power to take action on:
What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them.
6. The Age of Show Business
Post-television, facts no longer matter, as style and emotion are all that can be presented within the short time slots:
Prior to the 1984 presidential elections, the two candidates confronted each other on television in what were called “debates.” These events were not in the least like the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by the name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address such questions as, What is (or would be) your policy in Central America? His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation and logic can play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It is no matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates’ ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer was determined by the “style” of the men—how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. In the second debate, President Reagan got off a swell one-liner when asked a question about his age. The following day, several newspapers indicated that Ron had KO’d Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen by the people in the Age of Television.
7. “Now … This”
TV’s detachment requires whipsawing between fragmented subjects that make the reported events seem unreal, like war crimes are fictional happenings that we can forget about the moment we turn the TV off (or scroll past on Facebook)
It is also of considerable help in maintaining a high level of unreality that the newscasters do not pause to grimace or shiver when they speak their prefaces or epilogs to the film clips. Indeed, many newscasters do not appear to grasp the meaning of what they are saying, and some hold to a fixed and ingratiating enthusiasm as they report on earthquakes, mass killings and other disasters.
Jack Johnson’s The News:
A billion people died on the news tonight
But not so many cried at the terrible sight
Well mama said
It’s just make believe
You can’t believe everything you see
So baby close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight
Why don’t the newscasters cry when they read about people who die
At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eyes
It’s just make believe
You can’t believe everything you see
So baby close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight
8. Shuffle Off to Bethlehem
Televangelism creates a caricature out of religion because it shares the “sacred space” with titillating dramas, infomercials, talking heads, etc.; imagine these activities taking place in a church after Sunday mass.
Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different and secular event on the screen—a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to and immediately following most religious programs, there are commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment.
9. Reach Out and Elect Someone
Democracy and free-markets assume that each individual participant is rational and well-informed. TV dilutes this assumption by making all politics a matter of popularity and showmanship.
By bringing together in compact form all of the arts of show business—music, drama, imagery, humor, celebrity—the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest.
See also: Stuart McMillen’s comic
10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity
Why TV (and passively watching lectures on the Internet) fails as an educational medium:
Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
One may also assume that what is called “computer literacy” does not involve raising questions about the cognitive biases and social effects of the computer, which, I would venture, are the most important questions to address about new technologies.
See also: This Will Revolutionize Education
11. The Huxleyan Warning
Technology is Ideology. Arguments that “Technology is amoral” or “Technology itself is harmless, it’s only how we use it” are not true, because technology itself is ideology, as it constrains/changes what is allowed:
Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years. For example, it would have been excusable in 1905 for us to be unprepared for the cultural changes the automobile would bring. Who could have suspected then that the automobile would tell us how we were to conduct our social and sexual lives? Would reorient our ideas about what to do with our forests and cities? Would create new ways of expressing our personal identity and social standing?