Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

I intended to—and still might—write a really meaty post about this book, but I’m finding I need to mull over the ideas in this book a bit more. The short version is: I love Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman’s hypothesis is that, in predicting how the population would be controlled, Huxley, not Orwell, had it right. Our minds aren’t being controlled by force by a totalitarian regime but by our own insatiable desire to be entertained. Postman’s observations are even more relevant today than they were in the mid-1980’s when he wrote the book, and I found his curmudgeonly tone endearing, even when he was attacking “Sesame Street.” (I have no difficulty agreeing with everything he says about “Sesame Street” while still retaining my love for Grover.)

Here are some of my favorite quotes. Actually, I guess it’s the ideas behind the quotes that are my favorites.That’s one of the tough things about substantive books: complex arguments are difficult to sound-bite-ify. None of these quotes would make a pithy meme, but here are the quotes that represent ideas that really spoke to me:

p.11: “…beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers…with the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events.”

p. 128: “[Television commercials] tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies and dreams of those who might buy them. What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.” (And this was before DTC pharmaceutical ads.)

p. 130: “The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry…a person who has seen one million television commercials [the average a person has seen by the age of forty] might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to.” (This one really hit home with the way the current presidential campaign is going.)

p. 139: “The Bill of Rights is largely a prescription for preventing government from restricting the flow of information and ideas. But the Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America.”

p. 141: “How delighted would be all the kings, czars and führers of the past (and commissars of the present) to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.”

p. 142: “Parents embraced ‘Sesame Street’ for several reasons, among them that it assuaged their guilt over the fact that they could not or would not restrict their children’s access to television. ‘Sesame Street’ appeared to justify allowing a four- or five-year-old to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time. Parents were eager to hope that television could teach their children something other than which breakfast cereal has the most crackle. At the same time, ‘Sesame Street’ relieved them of the responsibility of teaching their pre-school children how to read—no small matter in a culture where children are apt to be considered a nuisance.” (Replace “Sesame Street” with “educational apps” and “television” with “tablet” or “smartphone” and you’ve updated the argument for the twenty-first century.)

p. 161: “Thus, a central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data— will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

The antidote, Postman suggests, is not to reject new technologies but instead to question them rather than blindly adopting them. I wonder, is this really enough? Whether it is or not is likely irrelevant. We turn to the Internet—especially social media—for so much information, connection, and emotional comfort these days, I fear we’re not much inclined to question the source.

7 comments

  1. Pingback: 2016: My Year in Books | Imperfect Happiness
  2. lindabdecker · May 27, 2016

    Charity,

    I found myself agreeing with your agreements but also wondering if my reading it would be like him preaching to the choir . . . it seems that there is so little that I can do except be mindful, especially of advertising. If it were up to me I wouldn’t have a television but then Rad would be using his computer to watch his shows. But I am just as guilty as I use FB & HGTV to ease my discomfort. In fact, just yesterday, I missed wehre the turkey went because I looked down at my phone. I just went on a tirade (to Rad) last week about advertising . . . aaaarrrrgggghhhh. I could go on and on . . . but why. . . going back now to read a little inspirational piece to get me back in a more balanced mindset.

    Thanks for posting your review.

    ♥ Linda

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    • Charity · May 27, 2016

      Linda,

      Thank you for commenting! My reading of the book certainly was peppered with a number of nonverbal “Amen!”s, but I found that there were interesting points there for me beyond the TV and advertising things. Postman’s premise is that the medium dictates the content, and as a result, there are limits to what one can do with any medium. Television, Postman argues, is designed for entertainment, and therefore anything that comes out of it must be entertainment (or at least is expected to be entertaining, which ends up being the same thing), including things that we expect to inform us, like news shows and documentaries. This doesn’t make TV “bad,” per se, except in that we turn to it for everything and that our reliance on it has shaped other media.

      That said, though, I think it took me longer to finish the book in part because it kept putting me in a foul, self-righteous mood that I didn’t want to be in, and I kept pausing to dig myself out. Perhaps some of the articles about Postman’s book as it relates to the current political environment in the US might be an option if you’d like to have a little bit but not immerse yourself in a whole book of it.

      -Charity

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  3. Spouse · May 27, 2016

    I first read “Amusing Ourselves to Death” around the time of the Bush-Kerry debates of 2004 and noted how prescient Postman was in describing the degradation of political discourse. The Donald Trump phenomenon renders the Postman analysis/predictions even more eerily relevant and accurate. The scary thing is that most people don’t even know it is happening, or at least underestimate the negative impact our amusement-inspired terrible political decisions could have on our world. The relationship of this book to current US political events is not my original idea; just type these words into your favorite browser: “Neil Postman Donald Trump.”

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    • Charity · May 27, 2016

      Thank you, Spouse, for the search term recommendation. Neil Postman’s book is eerily prescient from today’s perspective.

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  4. Jennifer · May 26, 2016

    Thank you so much for reminding me about Postman’s book. As I’ve been perseverating on the effects of our internet suffused life, it’s a perfect time to re-read!

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    • Charity · May 26, 2016

      I suppose I really should pass your thanks along to my spouse. He re-read the book recently and strongly encouraged me to read it…and put up with accruing late fees on his library card so I could finish it. Now is definitely a perfect time to read this one.

      Like

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