Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show
Business (1985) is a book by educator Neil Postman. The book's origins
lay in a talk Postman gave to the
Frankfurt Book Fair
Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984. He was
participating in a panel on George Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four and
the contemporary world. In the introduction to his book, Postman said
that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley's
Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to
amusement, than by Orwell's work, where they were oppressed by state
It has been translated into eight languages and sold some 200,000
copies worldwide. In 2005, Postman's son Andrew reissued the book in a
20th anniversary edition. It is regarded as one of the most important
texts of media ecology.
2 See also
4 Further reading
5 External links
Postman distinguishes the
Orwellian vision of the future, in which
totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from that offered by
Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves
into bliss, thereby voluntarily sacrificing their rights. Drawing an
analogy with the latter scenario, Postman sees television's
entertainment value as a present-day "soma", the fictitious pleasure
drug in Brave New World, by means of which the citizens' rights are
exchanged for consumers' entertainment.
The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest
of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content" that is, a
particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus
rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against
by the medium of television for this reason. Owing to this
shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and "news of the day"
becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of
information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of
entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is
Postman asserts the presentation of television news is a form of
entertainment programming; arguing that the inclusion of theme music,
the interruption of commercials, and "talking hairdos" bear witness
that televised news cannot readily be taken seriously. Postman further
examines the differences between written speech, which he argues
reached its prime in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and the
forms of televisual communication, which rely mostly on visual images
to "sell" lifestyles. He argues that, owing to this change in public
discourse, politics has ceased to be about a candidate's ideas and
solutions, but whether he comes across favorably on television.
Television, he notes, has introduced the phrase "now this", which
implies a complete absence of connection between the separate topics
the phrase ostensibly connects.
Larry Gonick used this phrase to
conclude his Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication, instead of the
traditional "the end".
Postman refers to the inability to act upon much of the so-called
information from televised sources as the Information-action ratio.
Drawing on the ideas of media scholar Marshall McLuhan —
altering McLuhan's aphorism "the medium is the message", to "the
medium is the metaphor" — he describes how oral, literate, and
televisual cultures radically differ in the processing and
prioritization of information; he argues that each medium is
appropriate for a different kind of knowledge. The faculties requisite
for rational inquiry are simply weakened by televised viewing.
Accordingly, reading, a prime example cited by Postman, exacts intense
intellectual involvement, at once interactive and dialectical; whereas
television only requires passive involvement. Moreover, as television
is programmed according to ratings, its content is determined by
commercial feasibility, not critical acumen. Television in its present
state, he says, does not satisfy the conditions for honest
intellectual involvement and rational argument.
He also repeatedly states that the eighteenth century, the "Age of
Reason", was the pinnacle for rational argument. Only in the printed
word, he states, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed.
Postman gives a striking example: many of the first fifteen U.S.
presidents could probably have walked down the street without being
recognized by the average citizen, yet all these men would have been
quickly known by their written words. However, the reverse is true
today. The names of presidents or even famous preachers, lawyers, and
scientists call up visual images, typically television images, but
few, if any, of their words come to mind. The few that do almost
exclusively consist of carefully chosen soundbites. Postman mentions
Ronald Reagan, and comments upon Reagan's abilities as an entertainer.
Bread and circuses
The Global Trap
The End of Education
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
^ "What is Media Ecology?". media-ecology.org. Retrieved August 8,
Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in
the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin. ISBN 0-670-80454-1.
Postman, Neil (1996). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of
School. USA: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-75031-2.
Neil Postman Information Page
Neil Postman: Collected Online Articles
Summary of the book
Amusing Ourselves to Death