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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse…

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)

by Neil Postman

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,638452,051 (4.13)31
  1. 30
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (jstamp26)
  2. 00
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    themulhern: Stephenson himself remarked that Anathem was a book about how people don't read books anymore. Moreover, there is a delightfully satirical sequence in which the characters are discussing serious things over food at a rest stop, and the narrator is repeatedly distracted by images on the speelies that are incoherent yet commanding. Later, the protagonist realizes that one of these images was relevant, and there is another bit of satire.… (more)
  3. 00
    The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler (chiudrele)
    chiudrele: Explains how today's world of internet is different from the old world of television. Society is not merely consuming information and culture, it can also participate in creation of it.

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» See also 31 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
Classic book written in the same vein as [a:Marshall McLuhan|455|Marshall McLuhan|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1243193001p2/455.jpg]'s [b:Understanding Media.] This book is a must for anyone wishing to understanding what modern society has become. While other books of [a:Neil Postman|41963|Neil Postman|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1193415026p2/41963.jpg] go deeper into his perspective and philosophy this is a good one for people new to his writing.

For more of his thoughts on the philosophy of technology, i.e. what technology means and how it changes us read [b:Technopoly|79678|Technopoly The Surrender of Culture to Technology|Neil Postman|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320482731s/79678.jpg|1511641]. For more of his understanding of education... well, you have your pick, really.

Excellent book by an excellent author. Only becomes more relevant as time goes on. ( )
  Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
An extended essay. Lively, but a little slipshod. On the other hand, vigorously written, humorous and full of pithy quotables. Also, it gave me a new enthusiasm for reading Huxley's "Brave New World" in which Huxley satirizes our contemporary society from almost 100 years ago. Dead on.

This was so much fun to read that I'm taking notes for an extend review.

Huxley and Orwell. Huxley's vision has overtaken us! Fine quotable:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture...Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

1. The Medium is the Metaphor
Politics has become entertainment. Politics is done on TV, so looking good on TV is important. Of course, Trump always looks ugly and odious, so I don't think mere appearance is as important as Postman was making it out to be in the 80s. Those who speak the news on television do have to look good, though. We are surrounded by vacuity. People deplore this with various explanations: "that what is happening is the residue of an exhausted capitalism; or, on the contrary, that it is the tasteless fruit of the maturing of capitalism; or that it is the neurotic aftermath of the age of Freud; or the retribution of our allowing God to perish; or that it comes from the old stand-bys, greed and ambition". Postman presents the argument that it is the medium in which public discourse is conducted, i.e., television rather than text, that has changed the content and character of public discourse. The reason for this is that television is all about visual imagery. We get breaking, up-to-the-minute news because the telegraph and subsequent technology allows the immediate transfer over large distances of little bits of de-contextualized information. "The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event." He argues that the commandment in the Decalogue against graven images is really an instruction about media, that the God of the Bible is an abstract god, and to make a concrete representation, a statue of such, will screw up the discourse. This is an unusual interpretation, but plausible. McLuhan said that "The Medium is the Message", but Postman prefers "The Medium is the Metaphor". Lewis Mumford pointed out how technologies introduce metaphors that were previously unavailable. The mechanical clock gave a way of dividing time. The introduction of writing of every sort certainly changed the way people interacted with language and with each other. But, what metaphor does television brings us? Postman says that media-metaphors are not so obvious as clock and writing.

2.Media as Epistemology
Epistemology is the study of knowledge, what it is, how we get it. Northrop Frye had this idea of "resonance", whereby things get taken out of their original context and acquire a more universal meaning. The idea of resonance and the idea of metaphor are closely linked, since something can resonate as a metaphor. For example, Hamlet, just a character in a play, become a metaphor for "brooding indecisiveness". Every medium of communication has resonance. Cultural notions of truth: parables, oral vs. written testimony in a court of law, logical inference before the inventions of science, quantification. Books, at least non-fiction, can be tough going. There is the need to keep track of complicated arguments, to withhold judgement, to consider abstractions, etc. If you expect to get your knowledge from books, you expect your knowledge or truth to have bookish characteristics. Three final points. 1. Not asserting that television changes the very structure of our minds, just the structure of our discourse. 2. The changes induced by television are not all consuming: people still read books, after all. 3. The topic is restricted to political discourse. The political discourse induced by print medium was superior to that induced by television.

3. Typographic America
For a few hundred years the settlers in the US were the most literate group of people on the planet. Thomas Paine's Common Sense was an immense bestseller, and nobody even thought to question that he had written this eloquent work, even though he had brought up on the lowest end of the economic scale. There was no reading elite, all people read all the time. In large part, though, they read books from England, and the only output from local authors in colonial times were pamphlets. Later, there were the lecture circuits. And of course, Dickens was lionized when he came to the US.

4. The Typographic Mind
More examples of print-based culture. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, long, intricate, full of complicated sentences. Advertising described what was sold. There was an implicit assumption that the reader was a rational human being. It is hard to write an English sentence that fails to make some claim or other.

5. The Peek-A-Boo World
The telegraph introduces de-contextualized facts about things happening far away. The photograph gives the news of the telegraph a kind of context and vice-versa. The information to action ratio is increased a thousandfold. Knowing consists in knowing of, rather than knowing about. All this knowing needs an outlet because there is no action that can be taken based on this information; therefore quiz shows and Trivial Pursuit. Impotence, irrelevance, incoherence.

Part II

6. The Age of Show Business
"Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television." Everything is being made into something that can play well on television. "Debates" between political candidates are not debates, they are merely contests.

7. Now...this
New is fragmented into brief segments, and presented without weight. Magazines and newspaper strive to imitate TV. All statements are taken out of context so that the idea of contradiction becomes meaningless.
"Credibility" is not based on whether or not you tell the truth, but how trustworthy your appearance is.

8. Shuffle off to Bethlehem
Religion is entertainment. And not just the televangelists but also the Catholic church. Television does probably filter out what makes religious services worth going to, but I have observed that people do it anyway.

9. Reach out and Elect Someone
From commercial "Reach out, reach out and touch someone" for AT&T. Commercials are the means by which politicians are elected. Commercials have ceased to make claims for the product. They are all about what is wrong with the viewer. Television commercials use pseudo-parables: the ring around the collar, the phone call from the son far away, etc. Everything is fixed in an instant. Being a celebrity vs. being well-known. You are a celebrity when you become the entertainment. "Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment - and cares."

10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity
Using television for teaching teaches that all learning must come in the form of entertainment. No pre-requisites, no perplexity, no exposition. Teachers ape television w/ dumb jokes and clowning.

11. The Huxleyan Warning
"Brave New World" is here! No realistic solutions proposed, but how could there be?
"Until, years from now, when it will be notice 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."

This book contains a bunch of sweeping assertions that are probably more appropriate to a novel than a serious essay. But the writing is so good, the insights so enlightening, that it deserves that five star rating. ( )
  themulhern | Jan 30, 2018 |
See book card, many page numbers, much objectionable
Type: jeremiad
Value: 2
Age: col
Interest: 2+
  keithhamblen | Jun 15, 2016 |
I intended to---and still might---write a really meaty review, 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 what's tough 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. ( )
3 vote ImperfectCJ | May 26, 2016 |
A perceptive look at US popular media - predominantly television - dating from 1985, though still relevant more than thirty years later. It takes only a very small adjustment of the imagination to add social media to the analysis, and that analysis still comes up strong.

We are more fortunate in the UK (in that we have the BBC, which by not taking advertising does not have to chase the ratings and the eight-minute attention span to the same degree), but we cannot afford complacency. Much of what is in this book I can see in our own media.

Equally, there are other voices in America who are aware of this problem and work against it. But they are a minority.

Interestingly, I'm re-watching 'Battlestar Galactica' (the re-boot) at the moment. It is a well-crafted show, with good plots (at least, until it got to the point where the show-runners ran out of ideas and began making stuff - especially mystical stuff - up as they went along), an interesting premise and a range of issues. But I notice two things about it: 1) episodes are shorter than their equivalents for 'Star Trek' or 'Babylon 5', reflecting longer advert breaks; and (perhaps more importantly), 2) by the story being set in a non-Earth society, the cultural references that the other shows inserted in the scripts - because Roddenberry and Straczinski are/were themselves educated people who wanted to share that education - are not present. The earlier shows 'sneaked' references into their stories that would take the inquisitive viewer into a wider world of cultural exposure; but by the opening of the 21st century, a science fiction show like 'Galactica' that was complex and demanding in terms of its narrative no longer felt a need to expand its viewers' consciousnesses as well. Postman's hypothesis wins out in the end, it seems.

We see the eight-minute attention span reflected in documentaries in the UK as well - sometimes even in BBC documentaries that are intended to be sold abroad, as they have to conform to a commercial tv pattern (watching popular BBC documentary shows, I can often pick out where the adverts will go when the show is re-broadcast on a commercial channel). On completely commercially-originated documentaries, this is reflected in the recapitulation of "the story so far" when the show comes back after the commercial break.

I found the chapter on US tele-evangelism very interesting. It suggests one reason why Islam is mis-represented so much in mainstream media, because (on my reading), the messages of Islam do not suggest ways of making yourself feel good, but in doing the right thing. And that can't be reduced to an eight-minute sound-bite that reinforces other, less spiritual messages that the medium wants to promote at the same time.

I'd like to think that UK audiences are sufficiently sophisticated to spot these sort of issues. (Perhaps one reason why there are segments of the UK political world who decry college and university 'media studies' courses, because those courses enable those who have done them to analyse and deconstruct what they are seeing.) (Hopefully.) In a way, the book has told me nothing I didn't already know, but it put it in a context of the development of US television media. The lessons it gives us are equally important for the digital media age. I see just the same forces working in social media to say "Look over here at THIS" so as to direct attention away from THAT. My one concern is that the book preaches somewhat to the converted, though by spreading the word, the message can sometimes get to new ears.

Otherwise, we shall end up in the world of 'Fahrenheit 451'; and occasionally, I see the underlying ideology of that world - "books are dangerous because they make you feel your own reactions to what you see, rather than what you are required to feel and think' - trying very hard to break through into our reality.
2 vote RobertDay | Apr 25, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
The dismal message of this landmark book is that, while we've kept our eye out for Orwell's world all along, we have smoothly moved into living in Huxley's. Through our own compliance, our implicit assent, and our endless desire to be entertained, we have allowed the television to behave as our soma and let happen unto us what, were it made an explicit part of the social contract, we would never have accepted. Orwell was a cartoon, while Huxley is our reality—and we don't even know it.
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Book description
Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140094385, Paperback)

A brilliant powerful and important book....This is a brutal indictment Postman has laid down and, so far as I can see, an irrefutable one. --Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:07 -0400)

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Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman's groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media -- from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs -- it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals. - Publisher.… (more)

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