In what ways is Amusing Ourselves to Death still relevant to an age less defined by television than by the Internet? In what ways is it not relevant?
As Andrew Postman notes in his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of his father's book, there are some younger students who criticize the book as relevant only to an older generation. However, its thesis can easily be applied to – if not elevated by – the age of the Internet. The concept of decontextualized news – the "Now…this" mentality – is doubly true on the Internet, where one can gather triple the amount of information his or her parents could in half the time and yet not necessarily have any context in which to understand that information. The rise of social media has enhanced the way that people can present themselves as commodities or defined personalities that ultimately entertain one another rather than provide accurate personal descriptions. And it would not be difficult in a world of viral YouTube videos, downloadable media, and ever-expanding Internet punditry to find parallels to Postman's basic theory that our discourse is one based around entertainment. However, if one were inclined, one could suggest that the Internet has somewhat returned us to a print-based culture. It has allowed many to start personal blogs, which use language and propositions, and many websites are indeed text-based. In this way, the media-metaphor of the Internet can be seen as quite distinct from that of television, and not simply an implication of television, which continues to be quite a popular medium.
Explain the concept of a media-metaphor, as Postman defines it. Apply it to both television and the Internet.
Postman suggests that Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism – that "the medium is the message" – is not quite accurate, since the medium is, in fact, the metaphor. He suggests that our "media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for the what the world is like" (10). As relates to his thesis, a civilization's media-metaphor shapes its discourse by defining the way that civilization understands truth. An oral culture will prize proverbs as the ideal repository of truth, whereas a written culture will value the permanence of the written word over proverbs. Postman's conception is that television, as a media-metaphor, has shaped us to believe all discourse worth paying attention to should be presented as entertainment. As such, our discourse both on and off the screen has turned into different shades of entertainment, no matter how important that discourse is. He does not address the Internet, but one could consider the media-metaphor of the Internet to be that nothing should be taken by itself, but rather should be accompanied by a slew of other disconnected information. A life lived without several tabs going at once is being wasted. We must constantly be stimulated and busy, or else we are not taking full advantage of our lives. As such, the value of silence and emptiness has declined in the face of the over-stimulation suggested by the media-metaphor of the Internet.
Who or what is to be blamed for the predominance of television, and the discourse it inspires? Feel free to cite Postman himself and/or your own opinions.
Postman seems to deliberately avoid placing the blame for the problems he details on any particular parties. Instead, he seems to think that civilization is somewhat powerless before its media-metaphor, especially when that civilization does not understand the way that media works to shape our discourse. He speaks of television almost like a sentient medium that inherently subscribes to its biases and preferences, so that it is almost a force like destiny. Our only hope, he suggests, is that we recognize the way it is working upon us, and attempt to exert control over it. However, he makes implications that touch on decades of thought, suggesting that there are parties – government and the monied interests of society – that can benefit from keeping the public diverted by non-stop entertainment. Both to increase profits from products, and to keep the public from demanding change, these entities might encourage the discourse introduced by television, rather than merely letting television take its own path. Postman's discussion of advertising in "Reach Out and Elect Someone" is perhaps the closest he comes to suggesting the profit some entities might gain from encouraging such a discourse of distractions to persevere.
Does the increased audience afforded to subjects like politics and religion by television justify the compromises it requires of those subjects? Why or why not?
This is naturally a question of opinion. Postman does not believe that the increased audience afforded to discourse like politics and religion justifies the compromise that television requires of them. His reasoning is different with respect to each arena, but both arguments boil down to the fact that television does not deliver an authentic and honest experience. Religion, he argues, requires a community present in a space that can be consecrated to its spiritual purpose. Religion is also difficult and demanding, requiring a person to confront himself. Television, on the other hand, is an inherently secular space in which a viewer can change the channel and will soon be subjected to commercials even if she doesn't. Therefore, the religious experience cannot be truly communicated through television, and so the larger audience is not getting a real spiritual experience. Politics are necessarily devalued into image politics through the television, which favors brevity, simplicity and imagery over deliberation and contemplation. As such, the complexities of any politician's personality and opinions can never be fully communicated on television without compromising his candidacy, and so the electorate will never have a truly rational understanding of who or what they are voting for. However, one could argue that the increased audience does justify the compromises by suggesting that people are not typically inclined to pursue intellectual or spiritual outlets on their own. By having these messages brought to them, people might be encouraged to investigate political questions or visit a local church, when they might otherwise not have been.
Explain the title Amusing Ourselves to Death. Should the title be considered as hyperbole or literal warning?
Postman discusses his book's question as a matter of high stakes, suggesting on several occasions that the Huxleyan warning is coming true, that we are becoming so amused that we can no longer tell the truth about our world. However, it is possible he does this for entertainment value, to keep his inherently academic book interesting to a general public. In his view, our public discourse is steadily devolving, and under the inherent biases of television, this will only continue. The continually trivialized elections, decontextualized news shows, and simplistic religious attitudes all support the idea that the warning is literal. One could easily argue that the title is hyperbole by suggesting that Postman's thesis, no matter how accurate, deals too heavily in generalities and does not consider that each individual has both his own relationship with television and his own set of experiences that will determine to what extent his discourse will be shaped. Similarly, one could argue that much of the problem lies with people's inherent triviality, and that television only amplifies these small-minded attitudes, rather than causing them to lead us "to death."
Postman argues that the crossword puzzle became a popular pastime around the period that the telegraph was invented. Explain the connection.
What the telegraph introduced, by destroying the idea that geographical distance limited communication, was the idea of decontexualized news. Before the telegraph, Postman suggests that news existed primarily to inspire action in the listener, to encourage him or her to change his or her world. This happened because the news had a context – the listener could relate it to his or her life and community. However, with the telegraph, a conversation across our huge continent must necessarily have been decontexualized. The same information could not be relevant to someone in Maine and also relevant to someone in Texas. Therefore, information became a commodity to be collected, rather than a means by which one judged one's life and then took action. The crossword puzzle was an obvious outgrowth because people could suddenly judge themselves on the extent of information ("trivia") they collected, and then use that information in a game. The crossword puzzle created a context for information that otherwise did not have one.
In what ways is television an educational "curriculum"? Integrate Postman's opinions on education in your answer.
In the chapter on education, Postman suggests that educational programs are less useful in teaching children to love learning than they are in teaching children to love television. By posing school-worthy lessons in an entertainment context, children are being trained to respond to learning only when it is presented as entertainment. Therefore, television is a curriculum on the contemporary discourse – which says that all worth saying should be said as entertainment – rather than on any particular subject. Children learn by doing, not simply be receiving information, and yet television is incapable of engaging a student. It only dictates. This idea of a curriculum could be used to generally understand Postman's thesis, which suggests television has trained us to respond to the world in a certain way; it gives us lots of decontextualized information, but what we retain most of all are the rules of the discourse that television demands.
How did the era of the written word influence the discourse in Typographic America, according to Postman?
One could argue that Postman over-romanticizes Typographic America, but his argument is nevertheless striking. He suggests that America's early era centered on the written word and thereby used a discourse that was fundamentally rational. He defines rational as something that puts forth a proposition that the reader or audience can logically understand and then judge as true or false. Postman explores how the discourse of Typographic America reflected this. Speeches – like those of the Lincoln-Douglas debates – used long, complicated phraseology, and even areas like advertising used rational paragraphs to make claims about products. Religious sermons were certainly emotional, but were delivered and prepared in a literary style. People, he claims, subscribed to a discourse of language, which was important for the message it delivered, and not for the entertainment value inherent in the words. This is quite distinct from the Age of Show Business, in which images are pleasing in themselves, so much so that we respond to the entertainment rather than to the message that the images are purportedly trying to impart.
Explain what Postman means in calling the intersection of telegraphy and photography the "Peek-a-Boo World."
As a children's game, peek-a-boo involves revealing a silly face or image, and then taking it away immediately to be replaced with another. Postman argues that in mid-nineteenth century America, the intersection of telegraphy and photography led to a world in which information was delivered without context and without any pretense of inspiring contemplation. Instead, information was delivered as typically sensational, and with the understanding that one headline would soon be displaced by another. People thereby grew accustomed to information as something soon to be forgotten in favor of something else. The relevance of any information to someone's life barely mattered, because even if it was relevant, it was soon replaced, leaving no time or inclination towards thought or consideration. Spectacle became the discourse of information, rather than serous content. The Peek-a Boo World led to the Age of Show Business, when entertainment became not just the discourse of news, but of everything, because of the media-metaphor of television.
Explain the phrase "Now…this," and how it serves as a metaphor for the way our current discourse operates.
Postman provides the phrase "Now…this" to explain the way news works in the Age of Show Business, but it is actually an apt metaphor for the general discourse demanded by television. Referring to the way a newscaster typically transitions from one piece of news to another, the phrase implies a disconnection between stories or information, and inspires a lack of contemplation or consideration of any one detail. No matter how grave, serious, or potentially relevant a story is, the discourse of news tells us that it should not be belabored, which it does by transitioning immediately to something unrelated. The next story might be tonally different, and it also might be an advertisement or commercial. This philosophy applies to television in general, which is required to deliver its story or message in concrete 30 minute or one-hour chunks of time, and which is in fact meant to create a self-sustaining experience between each set of commercials. This sense of jumping from one experience to the next, without truly living in the ramifications of any experience, is an indication of the discourse Postman fears we have fallen into. Religion is but one entertainment soon to be replaced by politics soon to be replaced by sports, and so none of those are meant to be truly profound. It is an easy jump to claim that in the Age of the Internet, the concept of "Now…this" not only remains relevant, but in fact seems almost prophetic on Postman's part.