The premise of Amusing Ourselves to Death is that a culture, in particular, public discussion, is defined by its main medium of expression. Postman appears to delineate history into three time periods, each with a different medium. The first, and longest, is the oral culture. This period is distinguished by its epic poetry as a form of story-telling and by the use of proverbs to preserve wisdom; court justice in an oral society is likely to be rendered in the form of a proverb (when debating the Pharisees over the issue of taxes, Jesus did not pore over books of law, but gave his decision with the proverb “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”). The second period is the written culture, brought about by the printing press. In this society the written word is king; if it is not written, it does not carry weight because spoken words are ephemeral. And because the written word lends itself to rational discussion, the society becomes a rational society (witness the Enlightenment growing out of the availability of the printed word). The third society, is ours, the age of images, the implications of which are discussed at length.
In order to highlight the contrast between the latter two ages, he discusses the printed word’s effect on early America. The process of reading requires the reader to expend effort to understand the writer and determine if the writer is saying something they agree with. Furthermore, the process of writing inherently lends itself to the creation of rational works. Since early America was an avid reader, it is little suprise that they listened to seven hours of debate between Lincoln and Douglas, who, unlike modern politicians, expressly addressed themselves to the rationality of their audience. Even advertisements appealed to Reason until the late 1800s.
Beginning with the telegraph, continuing with the camera, and culminating with the television, communication changed to be more visual, and more importantly, without context. The telegraph brought news without context. A picture is a slice of time and and space, and may be an aberration rather than the norm.1 Television turned this into an art form where disjoint images appear for no more than about three seconds on average.
Postman’s argument is the essentially that the nature of television is one that presents a sequence of images, not an argument, and therefore can only be used to entertain. To illustrate this point he observes news programs, which talk about a topic for about sixty seconds and pause every ten minutes for a corporate propoganda break. How can one take the news seriously, he argues, when they are not even serious enough about it to not interrupt themselves? Similarly, he notes that Christine Craft, a news anchor in Kansas, was fired “because research indicated that her appearance ‘hampered viewer acceptance’” (p. 101). Appearance has nothing to do with the veracity or importance of the news, but everything to do with show business.
Thus, candidates for today’s public office do not appeal to the reason of the electorate, but on presenting a favorable image and saying as little actual information as possible. They have learned from President Nixon’s well-known first presidential election loss due to his undistinging television image. And this is perhaps the reason Postman wrote this book: successful democracy is a rational endeavor, and yet the medium of today’s society has destroyed that rationalism, replacing it with a desired to be entertained. Hence the ending with a reference to Huxley’s danger that “they were laughing instead of thinking, but ... they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (p. 163)
Amusing Ourselves to Death is a cogent and caustic essay on the dangers of television to society, the oft noted mind-numbing effect that it has. It presents a well-argued case that the medium determines the means of communication and is shocking harsh, calling news programs vaudeville and television evangelists blasphemy. Postman draws an strong contrast between the intellectualism of early America and its sad lack in today’s society, yet he seems to unduly mourn for the Age of Typography that is forever gone rather than finding ways to use the strengths of images—their ability to evoke emotions—to offset the problems. Surely the poets mourned when the oral tradition died, yet society did not wither away in the face of the shift to rationalism. Similarly, while our age may not have the intellectualism of a written society, it has, perhaps undiscovered, strengths of its own. Since the Englightenment did not begin until about a century after the invention of the printing press began the shift to a written society, so our society is only beginning to adjust. In the final analysis, it is an excellent work to raise awareness of the problem, but ultimately leaves the solution for others to find.
Cogent and well thought out. It puts words to impressions that I have had for many years. Backs up his assertions well, even his caustic criticisms. A perfect example of the Age of Typographic thinking that he mourns.
1 An excellent example occured shortly after reading this book. A friend of mine was learning to water-ski and managed to stay on top of the water for about two seconds in all of his trying, but a picture taken during those two seconds gave the impression that he knew what he was doing.