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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Paperback – 1 Nov 1986


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Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Putnam Inc USA; Reissue edition (1 Nov 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140094385
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140094381
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.8 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 193,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Neil Postman (1931–2003) was chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University and founder of its Media Ecology program. He wrote more than twenty books. His son Andrew Postman is the author of five books, and his work appears in numerous publications. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John Williams TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 16 Jun 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The language of this book is quite dense in parts, and the arguments are complex, so it took me a while to get to grips with it, which, I suppose, makes me a living proof that Postman is right about what tlelvision has done to my generation. Having got over this hurdle, I found the book thought provoking and even, dare I say it, entertaining. Many of us have our suspicions about the adverse effects that television has on our society and culture. No-one articulates them better than Postman.

For 'show business' read 'television', as Postman's main beef is with TV. No doubt had he been writing this book today he would have included the internet and various other electronic means of communication. The 'public discourse' of the subtitle covers religion, advertising, news and education as well as politics. Postman's contention is that none of these are suited to being disseminated on TV, which is essentially an entertainment medium. So whereas watching 'The A Team' does us no harm at all, watching the TV news or 'Sesame Street' does.

The book has as a running theme the contrasting future dystopias presented in Orwell's '1984' and Huxley's 'Brave New World'. Postman argues that it is the Huxleyan rather than the Orwellian future that we should fear the most. TV is now our soma. In the last chapter, he writes, 'In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.' What a pity that Postman is no longer around to give us his thoughts on a certain Channel 4 programme.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By prisrob TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 21 Jun 2008
Format: Paperback
"In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw's remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read." John Ackermann

Neil Postman in his book,'Amusing Ourselves To Death', looks at the impact of television culture on the way we live our lives, understand our present and future and how we gather our information. We need to understand the effects of living in a television society. As he says "We are in danger of creating a trivial culture that will spawn a race of people who adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think." Once we are a television society, we have lost control. We can attempt to control television's influence when we understand the dangers. Neil Postman suggests that Americans ask 'what we are laughing about and why we have stopped thinking.' We have all heard the phrase, The Dumbing of America.

Roger Waters, of 'Pink Floyd' read Postman's book, and he was so taken with the message that one of the best CD's of this era was written. The song 'Amused To Death" tells us the story.

The little ones sit by their TV screens
No thoughts to think
No tears to cry
All sucked dry
Down to the very last breath
Bartender what is wrong with me
Why I am so out of breath
The captain said excuse me ma'am
This species has amused itself to death
Amused itself to death
Amused itself to death"

Ackerman tells us that "Television has altered the meaning of "being informed' by giving us disinformation. Disinformation means misleading information;misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information.
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By mr a ifrahim on 6 Oct 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Awesome enlightening book. Mind opener
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 277 reviews
164 of 167 people found the following review helpful
A much needed exploration into the philosophy of media 22 Aug 2002
By Ben Barczi - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Occasionally one stumbles across a work which perfectly summarizes an era. For example, we hail the muckracker novels, primarily "The Jungle," as a brilliant picture of the late 19th century in America; likewise, any Jonathan Edwards sermon captures the essence of Puritan New England. But Neil Postman, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death," has created not a picture, but an exposition of the state of America today. That it is an expostion, is extremely important.
Postman's thesis in this brief but articulate book consists of two tenets: (1) The form of communication, to some extent, determines (or is biased toward certain types of) content; (2) Television, as our modern-day uber-form of communication, has biases which are destructive toward the rational mind. TV teaches us to expect life to be entertaining, rather than interesting; it teaches us to expect 8-minute durations of anything and everything (anything else is beyond our attention span); it teach us to be suspicious of argument and discussion, and instead to accept facts at face value.
Furthermore - and, by far, the most important discovery Postman makes in this book - TV teaches us to live a decontextualized life. Just as a TV program has nothing to do with anything before or after it, nor the commericals inside it, we learn to view life as a series of unconnected, random events which are entertaining at best, and bear no significance toward any larger picture.
As a culture, America has lost its ability to integrate experiences into a larger whole; and Postman's explaination for part (not all) of this problem's development makes perfect sense. It certainly is true that the vast majority of Americans are perfectly happy not to develop any sort of framework or philosophy; life is simply life, and one doesn't need to consider it.
Even today's elite students, who are certainly able to integrate lessons and perform well academically, have fallen to this malady; as David Brooks pointed out in his searingly accurate article, "The Organization Kid," (Atlantic Monthly, April 2001) top-notch students no longer attempt to build any sort of moral or philosophical structure from their studies; a life lived in a context, makes no sense to the student who has grown up watching the decontextualized television screen.
It is extremely important that today's Americans take a close look at just what effects the television has had on themselves and their children; Postman's work is dead on target. We have moved, as a nation, from those who seek entertainment as a means to an end (most particularly, rest between productive work), to those who seek entertainment as an end in itself. And, as Huxley realized in Brave New World, this is the undoing of Western civilization - a prosaic fade away into an entertained oblivion. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it in "The Hollow Men," "This is the way the world ends/ not with a bang but a whimper."
174 of 180 people found the following review helpful
Postman's Thesis is Powerful, Provocative, and Important! 12 May 2000
By Barron Laycock - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For anyone interested in exploring the meaning of the rapid eclipse of ordinary reality and how it is being changed and altered by the rise of the electronic media, this book is very important. From the introduction and Postman's tongue-in-cheek comments about the novel 1984, his observations regarding the cogency of British author Aldous Huxley's technotronic nightmare vision in "Brave New World" through out the book right up to its conclusion, Postman binds your interest by illustrating and documenting how the rise of the elecrtonic media and its manipulation of what you see in way of news and entertainment has inexorably changed the meanings,purposes and ultimate uses of politics, economics, and technology. As Huxley himslef warned, totalitarian societies need not arise through violent overthrow of the democracies using brutality, cruelty and violence, but can also occur whenever the citizenry is successfully deluded into apathy by petty diversions and entertainments, as well. Postman shows how the electronic media's presentation of facts and fcition in an entertaining fashion diverts us, channeling our attention, money, and energies in ways that make us much more susceptible to social, political and economic manipulation and eventual subjugation. The book is a bit difficult to read at points, but well worth a sustained effort and a little concentration. For any citizen concerned about how the media is rapidly changing the rules of political, social, and economic engagement, and what it portends for the future, this book is a must read. And follow it up with Postman's book "Technopoly", which picks up where this book leaves off.
105 of 107 people found the following review helpful
A classic 28 Feb 2007
By David Darlington - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Postman's book is a harsh diatribe against the television industry and its effects on intellectual discourse in the United States. Postman argues that television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, and religion.

The first half the book dedicated to Postman's updating of the famous Marshall McLuhan postulate, "the medium is the message." Postman agrees, but takes it even further, stating in chapter one that "the medium is the metaphor." What he means by this is that our language -- how we communicate -- is only a metaphor for reality. We describe as best as we can what we see and know, but our method of communication circumscribes how and what we can actually communicate. Postman argues that whichever mode of communication we chose to communicate with -- be it oral, written, or televisual -- each comes with its own set of limitations. That is to say, "the form excludes the content." Some ideas simply can't be expressed by certain forms, which should be obvious to anybody who has tried to write a sarcastic email without the appropriate smiley face at the end.

Postman then guides the reader through a history of communication, laying out eras where oral, print, or visual communicative forms were culturally dominant. For Postman, the print era (or "age of typography"), which he dates roughly from the Reformation to the 19th century, is when rational argument reached its pinnacle. The form of the written word, Postman argues, requires the marshalling of evidence and the presentation of that evidence in a logical order on behalf of the writer, and patience and discernment on the part of the reader. Only in the printed word could complicated truths be clearly and rationally conveyed. During the 19th century, when print had reached hegemony in communications, rational thought was most most valued. A striking example that Postman provides is the Lincoln-Douglas debates. While these were certainly public spectacles (usually held at state or county faires), Postman presents them as if they were dueling long-form essays. In one particular debate (Peoria, October 16, 1854), Stephen Douglas went first for three hours, after which Lincoln suggested everyone go home to have dinner and come back in the evening. They did, and when they returned they were treated to another four hours of oratory, starting with Lincoln's rebuttal of Douglas. This sounds more like a paper session at an academic conference than a political debate, which is Postman's point exactly. Lincoln and Douglas did in fact write their speeches out, to make sure they made sense, though neither man was insensitive to audience response. In this era -- the era defined by typography as the leading communicative form -- major public figures, be they politicians, preachers, or activists, were expected to be able to make a long, rational, public argument, and the people were willing to listen to it. They weren't bored into a catatonic state by long speeches at all, Postman says, but rather interacted with the orators to encourage them, or challenge them to stay on point.

In the modern (television) age, however, things are different. Following the maxim "the form excludes the content," political discourse is no longer about rational argument, says Postman, but about entertainment and appearance. People get bored if television images are too static, so change has to happen, and frequently. There's no time to lay out a rational argument, but no matter, the passive audience doesn't want long, convoluted logic anyway. Television makes its viewers demand constant stimuli, so if things take too long, people just tune out. Debates rarely last even 90 minutes (poor Stephen Douglas), and politicos are lucky to get five minutes on a particular question. Not that they're expected to give a logical answer, anyway. In fact, they can repeat catchphrases as much as they want ("lockbox!" "it's hard work!") as long as they don't look bored (Bush 1992), condescending (Gore 2000), or annoyed (Bush 2004). Who really remembers what was said at the debates in the last presidential campaign anyway? Indeed, did those commenting on the debates immediately following ever really analyze what was being said? In rare cases, such as on PBS, you'd get issue analysis, but for the most part television political commentary was limited to "how did the candidate come across to voters?" "Did he appear honest? Likeable?" Postman says that we're no longer in the Age of Typography, but rather in the Age of Show Business. Television's rules control how we communicate today, even if we aren't on television ourselves.

Take, for example, religion. Postman spends a chapter on religious discourse in the modern era, basically laying into television preachers. Postman (who was Jewish) found some televangelists intelligent, others insulting and emotionally manipulative, but, above everything else, they were all entertainers. There was very little theological depth compared to say, Jonathan Edwards or even Charles Finney. Postman comes to two conclusions about religion on television:

The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as a second banana. The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers...

The point is that in the Age of Show Business, nothing escapes becoming entertainment. Postman reserves special scorn for the way education and news are handled by television. The news chapter is specially informative. Our news programs (even the "serious" news shows), he says, are basically entertainment, because they have music introducing ideas and pretty people ("talking hairdos") telling the stories. News items are stripped from local context, commodified, and given to the viewer in bit-sized chunks, separated by the "now.... this!" phenomenon, which serves to make the viewer dismiss it all as meaningless candy he or she can do nothing about. The "now... this!" phenomenon can be tried on any news broadcast. Tonight, for example, and update on the Iraq will be followed by ("now.... this!") Britney Spears' latest escapades. Postman says this serves to reduce it all to meaningless trivia.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is definitely a polemic. Postman starts off the book with a comparision of George Orwell's 1984 with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, stating that the point of his book is exploring the possibility that Huxley's dystopia was correct. Unlike 1984, where people are controlled by violence and pain, Huxley presented a world where people are controlled by giving them every pleasure they want. For Postman, television is the device that controls us by entertainment and pleasure. Is Postman provocative? You bet. But he does raise important questions about our uncritical acceptance of what we see on television, and our easy adoption of any new technology that comes down the pipe. Amusing Ourselves is a book that should be read and discussed by as many people as possible.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Technology and philosophy; history and analysis 11 Oct 2001
By Bruce H - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I agree with some other reviewers that Postman repeats himself occasionally, some of his information is dated and that some of his conclusions are obvious.
That said, I think the book is very interesting, in particular, by showing the historical progression from typography to television in America.
One of Postman's constant themes is to contrast Aldous Huxley's, "Brave New World," (1936) and George Orwell's, "1984," (1948). Orwell's novel is probably the more famous of the two; Government suppression of people, big Brother, the Party, banned books and the like are the reigning ideas. However, in Huxley's novel, people are uninterested in truth, pacified by pleasure and do not want to read. Postman rightly says Orwell's vision is restricted to countries such as China, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union. The danger for Western democracies is Huxley's world.
If you have not read these two novels, I would encourage you to read them. Cultural references to, "1984," abound and, "Brave New World," although not as well known is equally important.
Postman starts by discussing what media does to us in our understanding of truth, ideas and the like (i.e. epistemology). The philosophical impact of television vs. print is one of the most important points in the book. It serves as a specific example to illustrate the principle that the medium (or technology) is NOT neutral; certain types of media encourage certain habits of the mind.
The historical discussion covers the late 17th century to the mid 19th century. In this period, print was the only medium (besides oral communication) to be used in America. The result was that authors were famous, politicians were known by their WRITING, there were unprecedented levels of literacy and education was wide spread and popular.
Postman gives one particularly interesting example from a series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. Their opening statements were three hours, and there were lengthy involved rebuttals. That the public could listen to and understand hours of complex political argumentation tell us much about the audience of that time.
Some of Postman's conclusions on the implications print culture:
- rationality encouraged
- characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas
- advertising appealed to understanding, not emotions
All this is contrasted with the development of the telegraphy and the photography in the late 19th century. It was now possible to have advertisements that had no propositional content and decontexualize information and transport small pieces of information very rapidly.
The philosophical implications of this are great. With the spreading of much irrelevant information, impotent information and information that is incoherent, the ability to develop a worldview is damaged (worldview: a comprehensive way of understanding all of reality).
The second section of the book examines the implications of television for religion, politics and education. It is interesting but again, somewhat dated. One of the best points he makes over and over again is that television is very good at entertainment however, it cannot be made to be a vehicle for serious discourse. Television, as a medium, with frequent commercial breaks, a focus on style over substance etc cannot be used to properly discuss important issues.
It is unfortunate that Postman could not update the book to include e-mail, the Internet and the other new media that have been developed since the mid 1980's.
I enjoyed reading the history sections and the parts of other chapters that discussed the philosophical consequences of using different media (primarily print vs. electronic) most in the book.
73 of 81 people found the following review helpful
Man's Mistaken Identity 5 Jan 2000
By rareoopdvds - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Neil Postman's book 'Amusing Ourselves To Death' is an excellent look at the world today (more accurately in 1985). He explains that there is no need to fear George Orwell's vision of 1984, but rather to fear an older title of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. One which takes away freedom, the latter giving you all the freedom you want. Funny and witty, Postman gives a top rate analysis of the current media (second to McLuhan). I dont see this book as a prediction of any sort, but rather observing the direction the media of print and television is headed. Television has been given so much authority that it does not matter whats on it, so much that its on. Postman declares that television has the power to do away with books by the sheer hypnotic power that television has over print. And this, by being in a trance and reclining in our sofas to and forgetting about the world (and what the GOVT is doing) is just as fatal as the government getting involved in every aspect of our lives. This book is a nice read with some profoundness to it which will change your perspective on 1984, television and the way you live.
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