Stacking Functions Garden

Book review: Amusing Ourselves to Death


Amusing Ourselves to Death
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
By Neil Postman
Published 1984

A while back, I saw a very well-drawn cartoon explaining, in a nutshell, the thesis of this book.  It contrasts George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of the future, and concludes that Huxley was more accurate.  The cartoon really spoke to me.  It wasn’t until after I’d added the book to my library queue that I realized it had been published over 15 years ago.

What ended up being most interesting about this book was trying to imagine how and whether what Postman says applies to the internet, since he wrote at a time when culture was dominated by television.  We are already shifting away from TV, though the shift is still in its infancy.  So is this new shift an improvement or are we even worse off, in Postman’s worldview?  Well, he passed away in 2003, so it would have been hard for him to see exactly where the internet was going, culturally speaking.  Hell, we still can’t.

Did this book speak to me as much as the cartoon did? See for yourself:

Postman divides the book into two parts: the first is a history of the influence of media on culture and the rise of print and photography.  The second explores a culture steeped in television: 1980s America.

An interesting anecdote in Part I is that of a Revolutionary War-era religious group called The Dunkers. Postman came across their story in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Franklin had suggested to his Dunker friend that they ought to write down the tenets of their beliefs, and they responded that they didn’t feel comfortable putting anything in writing because they didn’t want their descendants to be “bound and confined” by it, in case God chose to reveal more truths as time went on.  Taking specific measures to ensure openness to future ideas: wow.

Postman also explores colonial America’s dedication to education of every child, and how that widespread literacy shaped our early culture.  Examples: the volume of books being sold in the US was astounding, and attention spans were downright shocking (he cites one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted SEVEN HOURS).

On to part II: the age of showbusiness, or 1980s America.  I did snicker at some of his criticisms, e.g. the “rapid-fire editing” on Sesame Street.  Yet, Postman pointed out several things which are still definitely true today.

Firstly, he points out the difficulty people have in discerning truth on televised programming, and how it forces us to rely instead on the credibility of the person on television.

This is a matter of considerable importance, for it goes beyond the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows.  If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate  a sense of verisimilitude.

You can just picture Postman watching Reagan on TV, then writing that sentence, can’t you?

He dedicates chapters to things that are now clichés, such as televangelists and pundits who confuse emotion with informed opinion.  But there are also some zingers, like his assertion that television commercials attack capitalism itself:

…the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists…believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest.  If greed was to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, then surely rationality was the driver.

Anyone who’s worked in marketing (or watched Mad Men) can see the problem here: modern advertising is wholly based on emotion, not reason.  And, at least in the 1980s, the television commercial was the pinnacle of this trend (which started in the early 1900s).

As a parent, I am very concerned about all this.  And for us that has translated into limiting the amount of screen-time our children get (see my review of Simplicity Parenting for more on that).  Postman explains well why this is important:

we learn what we do. Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.

Right now my kids can and should be kids — exploring, playing, learning, and discovering things on their own, rather than being passive receptors of one narrow kind of information.  I am not 100% anti-T.V.  We have Netflix, and watch DVDs several times a week (we’re a little behind on streaming still with our old power-PC Macs).

My challenge to you:  go DVD/DVR/Netflix streaming/whatever-only for one month.  Then try to watch a regular show on one of the networks.  You will not be able to stand the constant commercial interruption.  It’s become unbearable for me to watch regular TV now, and that’s just the way I like it because it’s a great way to control how much I watch–those three days waiting for the new disc to arrive are spent doing other things.  (Crap, how will I control myself if/when we upgrade and can finally use Watch Instantly?)

Postman is careful not to totally demonize TV, though, but to simply point out that, as high-minded as some TV tries to be, the message is limited by the medium.  Television demands interesting pictures, and simple explanations.  And shows that try to rise above the tumult and include actual thoughtful exposition fail, because the medium simply was not designed for it.  And that’s OK, but only as long as we are all aware of it.

So what are we thoughtful readers to do?  Postman:

What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested as well… He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Education.  There you have it.  And you all know where that starts.

The bigger question: how does all of this apply to a culture which is now shifting from TV to the internet?  My gut instinct is that some things are better and others are worse, but that the internet is somehow going to end up being this strange mash-up of print and television, hopefully eventually becoming more like the best of both worlds, instead of the worst.  Only time will tell.

11 thoughts on “Book review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

  1. I haven’t read this book, but this sounds like a great review – thanks for digesting the book for your readers. 🙂

    My husband and I don’t have kids yet, but we also only watch recorded shows and we’ve had many conversations about limiting advertising exposure for HFC (hypothetical future children) as much as we can.

    I’ve thought a lot about television as a medium in the last couple of years. There are definitely limits to what TV can offer, but as viewers gain more control over when and how they watch shows, the shows can become more complex, with much longer and slower-building story lines. Beyond that, because it’s visual, good TV can convey a lot in a short amount of time with mise en scene and nuanced acting. And like any medium, TV has the potential to raise really complicated questions and ideas.

    Mad Men is a great example of all of these qualities, IMO. The characters are multi-faceted and believable, the plot develops slowly and carefully, the moral and ethical issues are really sticky, and you can watch an episode three times in a row and catch more details and layers each time. I’m amazed by each episode. Unfortunately, like you said, most of the smart shows get cancelled (I’m personally mourning Caprica, Defying Gravity, Firefly, and Freaks and Geeks – you?). But maybe with the increase choice online viewing gives us, this will change. Do you think so?

    Last year I read Stephen Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You.” I can’t remember, but I think it’s at least partly a response to Postman’s book. In my opinion, Johnson goes too far the other way and some of his claims aren’t well supported, but it really made me re-think some of my gut reactions to, say, reality TV. If you have the time you might enjoy the bold perspective and the contrasts between the two books.

    • Wow, that was long. Sorry. :/

      • No apologies! I totally agree about Mad Men and feel the same way about The Wire. So yeah, I’m not totally anti-TV. And… I think it’s very possible that TV simply hadn’t reached its full potential as an art form in the 1980s, when Postman was writing.

        I’ve been thinking more and more about how some of these things that Postman wrote about are already changing because of the internet. Take for example the credibility problem. Credibility is much easier to establish now, because you not only have what the person says on TV, but you can also so easily see what they’ve written, what people have said about them, pictures of them drunk at a party, etc. ad nauseum. So I think the credibility thing is one thing that HAS improved, at least a little bit, with the internet slowly replacing TV.

        Oh I could go on and on. I’ll have to check out the Stephen Johnson book; it sounds vaguely familiar.

        Thanks for reading!

  2. “…we are in a race between education and disaster…”

    As an educator (though a pretty radical one), I have some thoughts on this. I do agree that education, as in access to information and thinking communities, is important. Most public education however, does not provide that; it’s part of the problem. Here’s why:

    1) School kills curiosity. Humans have a natural propensity for asking difficult questions and thinking critically. You can’t PAY a 3-year-old to stop asking questions. When this child gets to school, they’re told to sit still and only ANSWER (often pretty silly) questions.

    2) School severely restricts creativity by only valuing what can be standardized. When creativity is restricted, so is thinking. We stop stretching our own boundaries and just look for the “right” answer.

    3) The most important technology skills – the ones that allow students to answer their own questions, contribute something meaningful to the world, and take part in communities that satisfy their thirst for personal growth – are rarely taught in schools. In fact, these programs are among the first to be cut.

    4) Children are constantly being told what to do, how to do it, and even when to do it. If they can’t (or won’t) “be good” and follow instructions, they’re often so far as drugged into compliance in the United States. Then most serious topics are discouraged from conversation. There’s rarely any deep exploration or discussion of spirituality, sexuality, philosophy, or real-world problems. And the issues that most directly affect students, such as poverty in the community, school cultures that breed distrust and cut-throat competition, difficult home lives for many, and a lack of compassion between students – these are completely taboo or at least ignored. Even when students are allowed to speak about them, they’re almost never allowed to take part in forming solutions. When students have control over so little, they build their worlds out of what they CAN control. And without a more encompassing perspective on life, the most important things become social hierarchies, fashion, sports, consumerism, and other, almost inevitably trivial concerns.

    I agree though, that the Internet brings hope! Here’s why:

    (1) First, the obvious one. Information is easy to find. Once you have the skills to navigate the Internet and are familiar enough with some basic resources to start you on your journey, you can learn about nearly anything – and relatively quickly too. It’s a system that REWARDS not only academic, but casual curiosity.

    (2) Growth is emotionally easier online. If people find themselves in habits of thought or consumption that they feel don’t contribute to their well-being, they can take part in anonymous conversations, expressing themselves honestly without significant social risk. They can eavesdrop on public conversations for as long as they like, until they’re ready to take part; they can ask a lot of questions and it doesn’t matter if they “look dumb”; they can argue passionately, even if they might be wrong, because they’re talking to a stranger.

    (3) Like you both have mentioned, the Internet offers CHOICE. Not only choice of content, but also choice of community. We don’t have to watch crappy television because that’s what everyone on our street is doing. We can choose to receive certain fulfillments from other, global communities. And heck, if we really want something closer to home, even that’s possible with sites like and

    Phew…mine was really long too! Sorry. :-/ What are your (pl.) thoughts? How do you personally fight this trend? How do others you know manage it? And how do you protect yourselves from systematic influences that might urge you in the direction of “amusing yourselves to death”?

    • Wow! I agree with you, and it’s something I spend a lot of time fretting over right now as our kids approach school age. Did you see the Ken Robinson “Schools kill creativity” speech? Highly recommended.

      I will write more tonight when the kids are in bed and I have time to actually think and give you a thoughtful response. Also, I’m going to ask my husband, who teaches art in a public school and is VERY familiar with these challenges, to respond as well.

      • Yeah, that Ken Robinson video is great (I love TED)! If you liked it, RSA Animate just recently came out with another Ken Robinson video based on another talk he gives.

        If you’re looking for information on options for your children, I have resources for alternative schools and even non-institutional education plans, such as unschooling. I know some reformers/activists who also let their children choose how they want to learn on a yearly basis, and might have one child being unschooled while another is in the local public school.

        I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts and your husband’s as well! I’m Katie Mae’s husband by the way – I think I forgot to mention that. And yes, I love Mad Men too. 🙂 The Wire’s on the candidate list for what will replace it once we’ve caught up.

  3. OK, I’m back. Weird coincidence, but the principal of Adam’s school just sent that RSA Ken Robinson video around to all the teachers the other day. So people within the field are definitely aware of and WANT to find a way to overcome the problems outlined there. And I think that’s an important thing to understand.

    I also think that people have been trying and failing to build “the perfect institution” forever and ever. It’s just impossible to do a thing right, when you have to do it on such a large scale. But I also think that any of the institution’s shortcomings can easily be made up for with a rich, engaging home life and involved, concerned parents.

    I’m picturing the part in the video where the kid is sitting in the classroom trying to pay attention to the teacher, but then up pops the TV, and all the other distractions. Well, parents DO have some control over how much screen time their kids get. And they have control over whether their kids are drugged or not.

    I could go on and on about this, but in short: I think that the problems in our educational system reflect broader problems in our society in general. And I don’t want to just burn down every institution that is not performing how I think it ought to (well, sometimes I do). I definitely don’t want to demonize teachers. But don’t get me started on No Child Left Behind.

    I’ve looked into unschooling already, and it will definitely be a possibility if our employment situations change. We’ve also talked about signing up for 12 more years of financial hardship and sending them to a private Waldorf school here in Minneapolis. Ah, such problems to have! Poor 1st world mom, worried that her kids won’t have the very very very best educational experience. 🙂 Seriously, though, it IS all relative. There’s a good chance that our kids will end up going to the school Adam teaches at, and there’s a good chance that they will still turn out just fine.

    I will write more later. 🙂

  4. I agree with you 100% that demonizing teachers will get us nowhere – though as a teacher, I may be a little biased :-p. And many schools definitely do want to improve and even in the right ways. Many people in schools are very intelligent, creative, and caring – so why is change still so hard?

    I think a big part of it is the entire system was designed to weed out most students, not teach them all. Many essential parts of the current system, such as the top-down power structure, classrooms, the grading system, and uniform class periods, also may have been useful at one time, but they’re now outdated technologies. In today’s world, we can collaborate so much more seemlessly and anyone with Internet has access to more information and learning resources than the greatest scholars did even 50 years ago.

    So I think it may actually be necessary to more than tweak the system. I think we really do need to completely abandon our old assumptions and start fresh. Is it necessary (or even effective) for thousands of students to learn together in a single school? Are there alternatives to the grading system that verify learning without destroying students’ love of learning? Are our current ideas of curriculum and even institutionalized learning simply not suited to the ever-changing world we live in? I think these are all important questions but ones going mostly unasked.

    And I agree, the parents can make a HUGE difference. They’ll determine their children’s educational success more than any teacher ever will – but I also don’t think we should just throw up our arms and blame parents either. Like you said, the problems in our education system are reflections of broader problems in our society. These are not only widespread cultural problems, but institutional and structural ones that systematically produce and sustain cycles of poverty. I work with a lot of students whose parents don’t have time to drive them around after school or help them with homework, because they’re working all the time to pay the bills and put food on the table. These kids don’t have cell phones or Internet access and they’re not taken to museums or libraries. There aren’t any books at home and the computer (if there is one) doesn’t work.

    Some say the parents should be more involved, but for many, that simply isn’t possible. Some say parents should reduce screen time (when they can be home at least), but what if the television is one of the only sources of entertainment they can afford? What if the kids live a in neighborhood where they’re even too scared to play outside? A lot of families are stuck between a rock and a hard place – especially in this economy. :-/

    Unfortunately, there are relatively very few that are trying to help these parents out of poverty and provide them the resources they need to improve opportunities for their children. I think finding someone to blame is often the first instinct – but when problems are this pervasive and statistically predictable, I think we have to accept that the social and economic systems in place simply don’t work. And I don’t think this is as good as it gets either, as the pockets of dramatic, positive change that we sometimes see are proof that things could so easily be better, if we could only leave our assumptions behind and stop throwing around blame. Radical, fundamental change is difficult, but it’s possible.

    Heh…as for No Child Left Behind, I’ll leave it at a *solemn headshake*…we’re in agreement!

    And as for your kids, no matter where they end up, I’m sure they’ll do great and develop into fantastic human beings. Just the fact that you’ve looked into alternative ed probably almost statistically guarantees a happy, “successful” (however they define that word) life.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts again and for challenging mine! I think too few people take the time to (and have the stomach and patience for) “arguing like you’re right and listening like you’re wrong.” I look forward to hearing more!

  5. Dang, I can’t keep up with you! But I give you this.

  6. These comments are really interesting! I feel as an educator I also need to defend public schools and private ones for that matter. They are certainly imperfect institutions but I don’ think they hinder creativity. My husband is a perfect example. He was raised in Texas and attended a small catholic grade school and a huge public high school. In high school he discovered through art class that his niche definitely was in the creative areas. In fact, a teacher nurtured him and helped him develop his talents further. His family was very impoverished and could not contribute much to developing his talents, instead he was busy at home taking care of his younger siblings. It was purely through school that he nurtured this talent, majored in graphic design and ceramics in college, and now designs websites. He is honestly the most creative person I have ever met, his art is amazing, and he also has an amazing gift with developing music and DJing. Once again, his schooling did nothing to hinder the development of these talents. Instead it was through school that he found his talent and developed it himself. So maybe schools need to help kids do just that-find their talents and strengths and teach them to perservere to develop them fully. And honestly I do think most schools do just that! Then of course we need an economy where jobs can be found in these areas!
    But even more important I believe is the importance of the home environment. Using my husband again as an example, despite the fact that his family was poor and basically lived in a slum, he and his siblings were educated and “got out” so to speak. I think the main reason were his parents, and specifically his mother who devoted her life to her children and guided and pushed them to overcome the odds. This is much more important than anything kids can get at school.

  7. OK, so when the RSA Animate Ken Robinson video went around Adam’s school, one of his fellow teachers, Diane Erdmann, had a really great and eloquent response to it. I asked her if I could share it on here, and she agreed. Here it is:

    “As an ongoing student myself of the art of teaching, I feel that I too (like the students referred to in the video) have had the parameters of my “divergent thinking” drastically narrowed in the last five years, and especially in the last two years. I used to plan my teaching in a thematic fashion, trying to incorporate elements and activities from the range of Gardners Intelligences into each unit across academic disciplines with hands-on projects that applied the academic objectives to smaller products along the way, larger end-products to share, and a healthy dose of classroom climate-building and pride built in to it all.

    Now, I am trying to juggle so many micromanaged details and relentless schedules for both instruction and pacing which seem to focus exclusively on testing objectives, that I feel the leeway to go deep and explore concepts with alternative, fun, and creative methods is either being squeezed out of me or spread so thin, that I am forgetting how to teach to creative intelligence. (I am however getting better at micromanaging minutes to meet the micro-objectives–at least some of the time.)

    I’m not sure what the answer is, or perhaps this new super controlled system is the answer–to standardized education anyway. I just wish that I felt a little more trusted and supported by the system to carry out my calling as a teacher without the fear that one mistake could cost me my profession. It is an attitude that trickles down from above, even as far as the halls of Congress, and is difficult not to subliminally pass on to my students. The hidden cost is erosion of relationships, creativity and trust. Sir Ken has a delightful way of presenting his philosophy, but I do not think “piling on” teachers is the solution. I would like to know his thoughts on how the system could restructure to better support and enable teachers to feel safe enough to work with his ideas. Support, instead of vilification. What a thought. Is it possible to free teachers to be creative?”

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