If you’re in the mood for a harrowing reality check, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the antidote to your craving. Postman’s revelatory book was initially published in the 1980s, but his exploration of America’s preoccupation with entertainment is still sharp and pertinent. And it has retained its power to make us re-think the role of technology in our everyday lives.
Throughout Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman questions how the content of our culture has been radically altered by the emergence of new media. As he states, “our notions of truth and our ideas of intelligence have changed as a result of new media displacing the old.” The assertion that cultural practices and technologies constantly influence and respond to one another might seem like a value neutral observation, but as Postman delves deeper into his analysis, it becomes obvious that he views the shift from the Age of Exposition (text-based communication) to the Age of Show Business (image-based communication) as a profoundly problematic and troubling phenomenon.
The Age of Show Business marked a fundamental change in the way the American public evaluated information. Rather than relying on rationality and deductive reasoning to evaluate claims and arguments, the public began to define truth by its ability to entertain and captivate. We classified “news” more generally, and politicians won over their constituents with clever slogans rather than with compelling platforms or ideals.
When Postman was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death, television was emblematic of this collective preference for titillation over enlightenment. As a consequence, Postman has a tendency to position television as the bogeyman, the antithesis of a refined, coherent discourse he associates with text. I personally think Postman’s attitude towards television is a bit draconian, but it is clear that his critique is relevant to our current society. The qualities Postman thinks pose the greatest threat to our cultural substance are even more pervasive now, with Internet, a 24-hour news cycle, and incessant text messages cluttering our daily lives. In short, it is easy to see how the plethora of information with which we now come into contact has made entertainment so accessible that we can hardly escape it.
Even though Postman’s argument openly vilifies television, his polemical stance isn’t inherently alienating. Even if you personally disagree with Postman’s interpretation of the shift from text to image, he asks essential questions that everyone should probably ask themselves from time to time: What do we expect from our media? Are we reading to be enlightened? Are we watching to expand our sense of the world and its possibilities? Are we just killing time, or are we finding a balance between amusement and education? The answers to those questions can be instrumental in making us all more cognizant of how technology structures our relationship to discourse in the public sphere.
As Postman repeatedly states, we are currently living in a fragmented public sphere, one that is monopolized by a surfeit of trivial, inconsequential images, sound bites, and decontextualized information. As a consequence, finding meaningful content is no longer as simple as it was when text was all we had to contend with. Now, there are so many things to distract and delight us, it takes even more discipline to sift through the overwhelming abundance of stimuli. Television might not be evil incarnate, but I believe Postman’s study of its impact on society can help us all find more meaning and substance in a digital age.