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.
- “I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why [God prohibited graven images]. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures... The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.” p. 9
- “As Walter Ong points out, in oral cultures proverbs and sayings are not occasional devices: ‘They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.’” p. 19
- “Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged” p. 22. Socrates, for example asks not to be pre-condemned on the basis of his ineloquence; “But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely and opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.” p. 22
- “You may get a sense of what [effect the disconnection of the context of information had on society] by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps to you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime, and unemployment? ... You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent.” p. 69
- “The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.” p. 70
- “Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. ... But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. In fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way. In a world of photographic images, Ms. Sontag writes, ‘all borders...seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: All that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.’” p. 73
- “When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impermissible to say, ‘Let me think about that’ ... This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it.” p. 90.
- “The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear ... it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. ... We have become so accustomed to [television’s] discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb [by it].” p 104-5
- “I should go so far as to say that ... a television news show is
a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that
abandons logic, reason, sequence, and rules of contradiction. In
aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In
the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.” p. 105
- “‘The idea,’ [Robert MacNeil] writes, ‘is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. ... bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensible, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.’” p.105
- “For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is the star of the show. And why Billy Graham is a celebrity, and why Oral Roberts has his own university, and why Robert Schuller has a crystal cathedral all to himself. If I am not mistaken, the word for all this is blasphemy.” p. 123
- “We now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.’ Which is to say, we now know that ‘Sesame Street’ undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.” p. 141
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.