Amusing Ourselves to Death Book Summary, by Neil Postman

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1-Page Summary of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This book is about how television has affected society. It’s also a marketing tool for the author, who wants to reach as many people as possible by explaining his thesis in different ways. The book starts with an introduction of the author and what he believes, then presents background information on why he thinks this way. Finally, it gives more detail on his ideas and explains them further.

The book opens with a foreword that explains the two visions of dystopia: George Orwell’s 1984, where people were controlled by information and kept from power; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people were amused into passivity. The author wants to show how television has made us more like Huxley’s vision.

Part I is mostly about the history and background of media. In Chapter 1, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” he talks about how every civilization has a discourse that limits their thinking based on what kind of media they use. For example, an oral culture will think differently than one with writing because it’s hard to write things down and then read them back. He uses this as a prelude to his main argument, which aims to show how television changed everything in our society because it was so new at the time.

In Chapter 2, “Media as Epistemology,” Postman examines how a civilization’s media forms its epistemology. Media determines what truth means to people who live in that era. For example, a primitive oral culture will put great stock on a man who remembers proverbs because the stability of an oral society depends on such stories getting passed around accurately. A written language is permanent and therefore looks for permanently fixed precedents. The author thinks television causes us to lose said permanence; because all TV programs are packaged like entertainment packages, there is little room for serious discussion or debate about issues that need attention. This leads viewers to believe that our discourses can be printed and run together like print news articles posted online instead of presented with non-stop coverage like true debates received through live coverage or reality shows depicting controversy such as those hosted by Howard Stern

In Chapters 3 through 5, Postman discusses the way that typography influenced thought in America. The first period was the colonial era and early 19th century when people were very literate and rational, because they read a lot of books. This led to an emphasis on rationality in society as well as political discourse. After that came “The Peek-a-Boo World” with telegraphs and photographs from 1850 to 1900 or so. With these new technologies, Americans became less interested in context than information itself, which led to more irrational thinking.

Part II discusses the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse by prizing entertainment as the standard of truth. In Chapter 6, “The Age of Show Business,” he discusses how “The Age of Exposition” that defined Typographic America has been replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. He examines the inherent biases that television has as a medium – it demands rapid-fire editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation –and worries that our world has yet to truly consider these inherent biases in discussing television.

In chapter 7, “Now…This,” Postman uses the phrase “news of the day” to describe how we receive information. He suggests that this phrase assumes disconnectedness between all information. The most horrific story gets a short amount of attention and then is separated from another story. There isn’t time for gravity or consideration, and entertaining aspects such as attractive newscasters, pleasant music, and clever transitions only reinforce the idea that we aren’t supposed to consider this information in context with our lives. As such, we are no longer inspired to action by news; instead we develop opinions about it.

In Chapters 8 through 10, Postman examines how television has changed the way people think about religion, politics and education. Chapter 8 discusses how religious experience is no longer focused on a higher power but instead on entertainment. In Chapter 9, political campaigns are all about creating an image of what the public lacks in their lives rather than focusing on policies that improve their lives. Finally, in Chapter 10, educational institutions focus more and more on entertaining students with television methods rather than educating them to love learning.

In the end, Postman ends with a warning that Aldous Huxley was right. We are so saturated with television and its messages that we don’t even notice how it’s affecting us. He suggests ways to fight back against these effects by becoming aware of them, but he admits this is unlikely to work because people tend not to turn against their technologies.

Full Summary of Amusing Ourselves to Death

Overall Summary

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman opens by saying that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in his book Brave New World is one we should pay close attention to. Unlike George Orwell’s novel 1984, where government overreach is responsible for the death of free speech and thought, Huxley foresaw that entertainment would be our downfall.

The author continues to build off the work of Marshall McLuhan, who argued that “the medium is the message,” and expands on his theory. The form of a medium determines its content, or what we get out of it, which is why it’s important for us to be conscious of how we use media.

In the past, discourse was more rational because it was based on print. Print is a rational form of communication; therefore, people who used it were more rational. However, with the invention of telegraphy and photography came new ways to communicate ideas. These methods are not as effective at conveying information as print since they lack context and can be decontextualized. This leads to television being dominant in society today because it’s an entertainment medium that presents all information in an entertaining way. People no longer have time for complex debate or deep thought due to this media saturation.

Postman believes that television should not be eradicated, but rather it should be used responsibly. He says that we can save ourselves by becoming aware of the potential television has to permanently stymie rational discussion. Once we realize this power, we will resist the urge to “entertain ourselves to death.”

Foreward

Postman begins his book by summarizing George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984, as well as Aldous Huxley’s (also dystopian) 1932 novel Brave New World. Both of these authors predicted a future that was grim and oppressive, but they didn’t predict the same thing. Orwell feared that we would be oppressed by external forces such as governmental control. Huxley feared that our internal weaknesses and desires to be entertained would make us lazy, stupid, and intellectually incompetent. In short, Postman says that “Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us; Huxley feared what we love will ruin us.”

Chapter 1

In the first section of this chapter, Postman writes about various examples that demonstrate how Americans have become increasingly superficial thinkers. Politicians are praised for their looks or physique on TV and in print media. We’ve developed shorter attention spans because of our exposure to fast-paced television news shows. Advertisers prey on our desire for entertainment by making us hungry for short quips rather than substantive information and knowledge.

Postman acknowledges that this is a well-known phenomenon, but he argues that we haven’t taken it far enough. The relationship between form and content in public discourse has led to the decline of our culture. We need to keep in mind how important media are for our society’s development. For example, without technologies like photography and television, politicians’ or reporters’ appearances wouldn’t be as influential on the general population because they would reach fewer people. Therefore, conversations about appearance wouldn’t exist either if these technologies didn’t exist.

In this passage, the author is quoting Marshall McLuhan. He says that the medium of a message (such as television) is not just the physical form of it, but also its content. Postman disagrees with him and says that the media are metaphors for ideas or concepts.

New technologies can have an effect on our culture. For example, the invention of eyeglasses has led to a new way of thinking about the human body and how it can be improved through science. Microscopes have also had an influence because they allow us to see things that we cannot normally see with our eyes. In addition, Postman says that metaphors are created by media such as language or technology, so when we come up with new ways of communicating ideas, this leads to a change in society’s content—in other words, what people think about themselves and their world.

Chapter 2

In this chapter, the author discusses how television has changed culture. He says that when people got their information from the printing press, they were more rational and logical; now, under the governance of TV, we’ve become shriveled and absurd.

Postman begins to support his claim with a discussion of a tribe in western Africa that has an oral tradition. They rely heavily on the wisdom of their elders, which is passed down through sayings or aphorisms. When someone commits a crime, they look for an applicable saying and use it as guidance for what to do next.

In the print culture of America, aphorisms are considered unserious. They’re used to illustrate a point, not as evidence in court cases. However, if we relied on oral tradition exclusively for our knowledge and truth, we would be limited by memory and wouldn’t need long texts or accounts to determine truth. Because we have media like books and recordings now, we can rely on them to convey information instead of just passing it down from person to person. In other words, what’s written is more true than what’s spoken because it can be recorded accurately.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman says that America’s print culture is declining in favor of a television-based epistemology. This shift has resulted in our collective intelligence getting worse and worse as a society.

This book will be about how media affects us. The author, Neil Postman, says that we’re all affected by the media we consume, and he cites himself as an example of this fact. He’s particularly lucid because he refuses to give up on print culture—he thinks it’s still important and relevant in today’s society. In fact, he even uses examples from books to illustrate his points about how media affects our lives.

Chapter 3

In the 17th century, there was a lot of growth in book distribution. This had a big impact on early American culture and literature. For instance, literacy rates were relatively equal between classes and genders, which was unusual for that time period. Common Sense by Thomas Paine is an example of Colonial America’s literate society because it reached so many people through its widespread distribution.

Common Sense was a book that sold over 100,000 copies in just a few months. In 1985, this would have been considered to be an amazing feat for any book. By comparison, the only event today that could generate such attention is the Super Bowl.

America became a print-based culture in the nineteenth century. All spheres of American life revolved around print media, including literature, newspapers and pamphlets. Charles Dickens was treated like a celebrity when he visited America in 1842; his reception was as great as that given to television stars and popular athletes today.

Even lectures are becoming more like print. They’re longer, more complex and logical, which is easier for people to understand because they’ve been trained on reading.

Postman continues his argument by saying that the reason for this was because of the monopoly on information. People communicated in a more sophisticated manner because they were using print to do so. Therefore, it is important to continue investigating how colonial America’s epistemology was shaped by the printing press in order to address Postman’s concerns about 20th century America and its decline in rational conversation.

Chapter 4

In the late 1800s, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated each other for hours on end. Postman wonders how people of that time could be so patient with a debate, which lasted over an hour. He is confident that audiences today would never give their attention to such things because they are used to shorter presentations through television and radio.

Postman also analyzed the speech of Lincoln during the debate. He noted that Lincoln used a complex sentence, which was very long and logically complicated but still easy to understand. Postman pointed out that today’s politicians are less likely to use this kind of language because they either don’t know how or they’re afraid of being incomprehensible. People in television culture need “plain language” for their communication needs, according to Postman; 19th century Americans had different needs when it came to communicating with each other.

He then says that when people read, they try to understand what the author meant. When someone writes, it forces them to think about their subject matter and explain how they feel on the topic. He goes on to say that this is why call text “serious business.” It encourages people to think about their subject materials more deeply than other forms of writing or media. This is why he calls print culture simultaneously rational and logical in nature.

Postman then says that great men of the past, such as thinkers and orators, were required to be well-versed in their subject matter. Their audiences had to do some work to understand what they said. He notes that a good preacher would have been an intelligent man who knew his Bible very well. The same is true for politicians at the time—they had to know enough about politics and history so that people could trust them with their futures. In contrast, today’s preachers are often anti-intellectual because they want people’s faith instead of knowledge; hence many are not particularly bright themselves but can still get a following based on their fervor alone (a megachurch).

Postman then moves his attention to advertising. In the age of reason, advertisers appealed to their audience’s rationality. But with the decline of print culture, it was no longer safe for them to assume that people were rational. Instead, they had to appeal to emotions and psychology—the same way TV does today.

Postman talks about how we used to associate the names of great thinkers with their handwriting or style of writing. Now, people don’t remember what they wrote; instead, they only remember their image. This is a result of the rise in technologies that allow us to share images more easily than ever before.

Postman continues his argument by saying that before electricity, people had to use their time wisely. They could only read when they had daylight and would read carefully and with full attention. People didn’t have the ability to quickly flip through a book or magazine like they do now; reading was always connected with understanding it. But at the end of the nineteenth century, this changed with the advent of electricity. People were able to read in places where there was no light available (such as on subway trains). This led to shorter attention spans because people were used to being distracted while reading. It also led to more entertainment-oriented content since newspapers wanted readership and weren’t concerned about whether or not someone actually understood what they were reading about anymore (this is called “show business”).

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Chapter 5

In the first chapter, Postman talks about how the telegraph changed American culture. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to get information from one place to another quickly. This was a huge shift in culture, because before the telegraph people had to wait for news and it wasn’t always accurate. Now there could be instant communication between places that were far apart. However, Postman says that with this new technology came some negative effects such as irrelevance (unimportant things being communicated), impotence (people not having control over what they communicate), and incoherence (the information received is difficult to understand).

The telegraph also introduced information that wasn’t relevant to the people who received it, because of its delivery method. It was delivered so quickly that no one could react to it in time.

Postman asks his readers how many times they’ve been compelled to do something after seeing the news. He then launches a new critique of image culture, saying that we absorb the news but it has no effect outside of capturing our attention for a short time. Postman says this problem is predicted by the telegraph because it was all about knowing things, not knowing about them.

Postman says that the word “photograph” is etymologically derived from “writing with light.” He argues that this definition is ironic, given that photography and writing have nothing in common. Photography can only deal with concrete particulars; it cannot handle abstract concepts or invisible content. Furthermore, photographs are like telegraphs: they isolate information from its context. Nothing outside of the frame of a photograph can be seen.

Photography is a powerful medium that can be used to enhance or replace written language. The power of photography was recognized by advertisers and newspapers, which started using them on the front page instead of text. Newspapers also started using photographs more in their articles because they were so popular with readers. As a result, people began trusting images more than words for many things like news stories and advertisements.

Postman says that the telegraph and photograph gave each other a pseudo-context. They were used together in popular culture, whether it was politics, entertainment or advertising. However, these two things are only a false refuge because they overwhelm people with irrelevance and incoherence.

The author says that print culture wasn’t destroyed in one fell swoop, but it’s certainly dying. In fact, Postman believes that the vibrancy of prose is diminishing as we become more and more dependent on television. He thinks this trend will only get worse with new generations who don’t know what life was like before TV took over our lives.

Postman acknowledges that the computer is still in its infancy. He says it will be a while before we truly understand what computers mean to our everyday lives, but he does point out one thing: most of us learn about technology from television.

Postman wraps up the chapter by noting that the culture of television has become so ubiquitous and normal, we don’t even notice it. In other words, there seems to be nothing strange about this kind of communication. Postman’s goal is to make us aware of how pervasive television is in our daily lives.

Chapter 6

The author begins the chapter by saying that we shouldn’t think of television as an extension or augmentation of other media. He says this is an example of what McLuhan called “rear view mirror thinking.” Instead, he says that television attacks literature directly.

Television is not only entertaining, but it has also made entertainment the most important part of life. Information can always be presented in an entertaining way. In fact, information is always delivered through television shows and other forms of entertainment.

Although television can be used to deliver serious discussions, it’s more often used for entertainment. The time limits and interruptions of the advertisements make it difficult to have a real discussion. These problems are present in all televised media, such as news shows and talk shows.

“Television is America’s primary source of information about the world,” Postman says. He argues that what we see on television has become the model for how people should behave in their daily lives. For example, Americans no longer talk to each other as much as they entertain one another with TV shows and movies.

People have been entertained by the idea of watching a real courtroom proceeding. They watch them as if they were soap operas. The title of Irving Berlin’s song, There’s No Business Like Show Business, is relevant because people are more interested in watching shows than doing businesses.

Chapter 7

In this chapter, Postman discusses the phrase “now…this.” It is a transition that can be seen on television and radio broadcasts. He says it indicates that what you have just heard has no consequence, and what you are about to hear has no context. Television did not invent the “now…this” worldview; it came from telegraphy and photography. However, television put this mindset into its boldest form by constantly bombarding people with pictures of events happening now.

People in today’s society trust attractive or stylish people to deliver the news. This is because they believe that if someone looks credible, they must be credible. Postman says that instead of reality being the criteria for truth, it has become credibility.

“The result of all this,” Postman says, “is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” He says that America is a place where information can be easily found but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand what’s going on around you.

George Orwell would not be able to recognize the current state of affairs in America. It is like a game of Trivial Pursuit, and there’s nothing “Orwellian” about it. Aldous Huxley would not be surprised by this situation at all because information overload has become the norm in modern times.

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Chapter 8

This chapter talks about the preaching of evangelical pastors. Specifically, it focuses on Reverend Terry and Pat Robinson, who are considered television preachers by Postman. They’re dramatic and emotional in their sermons; they also provide comfort to their audiences. In this chapter we see how television has changed religion from something that takes place inside a church building into something that is watchable at home on TV screens.

According to Postman, religion undergoes a fundamental change when it becomes televised. When we watch preachers on television, we are always capable of changing the channel or shutting off the screen at any time. Thus there is a certain kind of secularism hanging over televised religion. Preachers must make their programming compete with other programming by offering it at convenient hours and spicing up their sermons with entertainment.

Television has changed religion into something that gives us what we want, not what we need. We should be upset about this because television is taking the place of religion and changing it to fit its own needs.

Chapter 9

This chapter argues that TV is bad for capitalism. Capitalism relies on consumers being able to choose the best product available, but TV commercials don’t allow them to do that because they’re not about products at all. Instead, they’re about making people want things and convincing them that it’s normal to buy products even if you can’t afford them or don’t really need them. The point of advertising isn’t what we know about a product anymore; instead, it’s what advertisers know about us as consumers and how they can convince us we need their stuff.

Postman argues that television advertisements are like a form of therapy. In 15 to 20 seconds, the consumer feels as though her needs have been addressed, and she is satisfied with that feeling.

Television also has a profound effect on politics. Politicians are chosen by how they appear on television, as well as the slogans and symbols used in their campaigns. All of these things are a result of TV culture.

In addition, our relationship with history has changed because of television. Since TV is a medium of instantaneity and presence, Americans don’t feel connected to the past anymore.

Orwell made a mistake, according to Postman. He thought that governments would be the ones responsible for the restriction of information and death of free print media. However, people are actually more likely to restrict ideas than governments. For Orwell, freedom of language and thought was sacred; he believed it needed protection from government censorship. But in reality, television is the real threat to freedom of speech and expression because it’s what people use most often instead of reading books or newspapers on their own time.

Chapter 10

Postman uses the example of Sesame Street in this section. He compares it to real life because he believes that children should learn from real people, not TV shows or computers. Education is more than just reading, writing and math; it’s about having a conversation with someone and asking questions.

People who think of television as educational are wrong, says Postman. He argues that all television is educational, but it teaches people the value of disinformation and entertainment rather than information. When children watch TV they learn only what a TV can teach them: which is why TV shows should be entertaining rather than informative.

Chapter 11

There are two ways to destroy a culture. In the first, people who hate and hold grudges take over. In the second, people with smiles and love spread their ideas throughout society.

So, what’s to be done? Postman says that we can’t simply shut down our technological devices. Rather, he suggests that media become less dangerous when they are properly understood. He imagines the remedy is education about television and its power to shape our national discourse. Once people understand how television works, they can promote other forms of media (like print). After all, says Postman, “Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death Book Summary, by Neil Postman
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