Amusing Ourselves to Death

What could possibly be bad about entertainment? How could something which amuses and provides us with pleasure have harmful implications?

These are questions you might very well be asking after seeing the title of the book this review is about: “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Here, amusement, which is seen as something light and unserious, is connected with the darkest and most serious inevitability ingrained into the experience of life: death.

This polemical book, written by Neil Postman, is a warning against the dangers that come along with the Age of Entertainment. Postman is writing these cautions in 1984, and since then, I would say, we have only slid further down the slippery slope he envisioned. 1984 found our Western culture on the very edge of something new, something which would and does, in many ways, define our social landscape: the computer, and the digital technologies and social media platforms that have sprung from this invention. Although Postman doesn’t give much attention to the computer, focusing instead on the effects of television, his insights are still infinitely relevant in our current age. Indeed, the ramifications of television consumption can be extended quite naturally to the new forms of technology that have gained prominence since Postman’s time.

When I first picked up this book, I expected it would criticize what we might call “trash television,” programs explicitly designed to provide viewers with mindless entertainment. However, while Postman doesn’t endorse such programs, they are not his main focus. Interestingly, he says, “we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.” In trash T.V. that we identify and recognize as trash T.V., Postman does not see a problem. Throughout the course of the book, he exposes the real problem: television becomes destructive to our society when it masquerades as something important and pervades serious aspects of life like the news, religion, politics and education.

The biggest takeaway from this book is, I think, the understanding of the vitality of medium to content. Let me explain what I mean by this, and what Postman means when he employs it in his exposition of television. A book (or a physical object bearing the printed word, like a newspaper or pamphlet) is one particular form, or a medium. Postman refers to this as typography. With typography, words take precedence and this implies a logical progression of thought, time and reflection (both in the act of writing and of reading), and permanence (the printed word is not designed to be instantly thrown away but in a sense, immortalized on the page). Postman spends some time discussing the reign of typography, which he sees as giving way with the recent emergence of telegraphy.

Under the banner of telegraphy (obviously stemming from the telegraph) is the television. And as television, a new medium or form, increasingly became a staple of life, images took precedence over words. With television, we have a whole different set of expectations than with a book, or any other medium. The images presented to us are constantly changing; we are not required to keep any one thought in mind for too long (in fact, we are pressured to perpetually move on to the next). In this way, television discourages reflection and it is certainly not suited for permanence. As Postman argues, television attempts to keep us watching and more than anything, to keep us entertained.

This is not something that can be separated from the content, because it is built into the very framework of television. Here is what is meant above by the relationship of form to content. The most dangerous thing is the illusion that what we express through television is the same as what we express in a book. Such a statement overlooks the distinction between the two forms. When we try to transfer religion, for example, from the sacred space of a church onto the screen, which we watch while munching popcorn on the sofa, we will not obtain the same results! Because it is on television, it seeks to entertain and not to demand anything too strenuous of us. From this, we get religion that amuses but cannot really fulfill; news that provides intriguing tidbits of trivia but does not really inform or include any meaningful context; politics that become about popular image and celebrity but not knowledge; education that entertains its pupils but does not enable them to grow or learn anything of much value.

All of Postman’s points, in my opinion, are only heightened in significance in today’s digital landscape, where we are fragmented not only by television (and online streaming), but also by social media and the brief, instantaneous messages that form the basis of our communications. Postman’s book is not long and it is not difficult to read or understand, and yet its message is extremely important. Awareness is key, not so that we can despair over our cultural situation, but so that we can cast a wary eye on the sources of information we turn to, and so that we can reclaim our cultural inheritance of the past with an earnest search for truth, not just entertainment.