Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death Quotes and Analysis

"Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

p. xix

Postman introduces his basic "hook" right away – dystopia and cultural degradation can come either through state tyranny, or through more insidious means that the public does not even identify. He suggests that television works according to this second model, and that our public is losing its "autonomy, maturity and history" without even realizing it. Worse, we celebrate the very cause of those degradations. Postman's basic thesis is that television is changing our public discourse by turning it all into entertainment, but he does not mean his argument to have a detached academic air – instead, by presenting the question in the frame of dystopia, he suggests that the stakes are extremely high if we do not recognize the way television is changing us and try to re-exert our control over it.

"This idea - that there is a content called "the news of the day" – was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is quite, precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation."

p. 8

Postman seems to have a special ire for the way news has changed under the media-metaphor of television. In this quote, he both introduces the basic concept of news in the Age of Show Business, and introduces the concept of decontexualization, which he continues to explore. "News of the day" is information that does not immediately affect the listener's life, but instead only has novelty value. It cannot change us and has little practical value; it is something that only exists in a world linked by media like the telegraph or television. Further, it is decontextualized. We hear a sensational story about a rape that takes place on an Indian reservation, and might get emotionally affected, but can do nothing about it; most of us have never been to an Indian reservation, and would have little agency there in any case. He suggests that our news and world are now comprised of information that has no practical context. Finally, in this quote, he suggests that this existence of decontextualized information is not something we control, but rather something that happened because our "multiple media" inspired it. This touches on his consistent and implicit argument that a media-metaphor enacts change on its own.

"And so, I raise no objection to television's junk. The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do."

p. 16

Postman wrote his book for a general audience, but nevertheless discusses television in terms of its theoretical and metaphorical significance. In this quote, he makes it clear that he does not mean to stage a banal attack against television as something that dumbs us down. In fact, he seems to embrace television's dumbest aspects as its primary virtue; its "junk" is its best quality. Instead, he suggests that television's mode of discourse has infected our most important levels of discourse, and is thereby actively harming us. He makes a distinction between serious television – which is what the "intellectuals and critics" presumably push for – and the idea that 'serious' television is what can cause the most damage, since television can never actually be serious, but instead is firmly devoted to entertainment above all. 'Serious' television is accidentally hypocritical; "junk" television is exactly what it claims, and therefore has less power to dupe us.

"The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that "truth" is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant."

pp. 22-23

To frame his attack on the way television has denigrated our public discourse, Postman spends several chapters discussing the way media infiltrates a culture, dictating not only the way in which that culture communicates amongst itself, but in fact the way that culture sees truth. There is a sense of relativism in this quote, in that Postman does not acknowledge the existence of a supreme "truth." Instead, truth can only be viewed through its form, and that form will always be limited by the media that defines it. By establishing this as a criterion for discussion, Postman is then able to contrast the epistemology (way truth is viewed) of Typographic America with that of the Age of Show Business. Ultimately, even though he does not view truth as a universal ideal, he does argue that some epistemologies are superior to others, and that the one dictated by television is harmful.

"The written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. This may sound odd, but since I shall be arguing soon enough that much of our discourse today has only a marginal propositional content, I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication - especially language controlled by the rigors of print - an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result."

pp. 50-51

Part of Postman's argument against the discourse inspired by television is that it does not allow an audience to truly judge whether its content is accurately presented or not. Therefore, we are not only unable to know whether a politician lies, but in fact have no actual claims to either doubt or validate. In contrasting the Age of Exposition with the Age of Show Business, this quote suggests that the former age inspired a rational epistemology, one in which the public viewed language as a means to make propositions that necessarily had a content worth judging. Televisions, on the other hand, does not make any claims, but instead deals in symbols and mythologies to entertain us, often for the sake of psychologically influencing us to buy products. Because television does not favor discourse that makes claims, we have grown accustomed to no longer being skeptical of what is given to us. A commercial that merely presents an image and no claim of a product can be disliked, but it cannot be refuted. The discourse inspired by television shies away from actual content, so that the public loses agency in judging whether it is being spoken to accurately and truthfully.

"How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?...Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action."

p. 68

Here, Postman defines his sense of decontextualized information, both in terms of its definitions and its potential to harm us. He suggests that while we feel connected to the information of the "news of the day" because it inspires opinions from us, we are nevertheless unaffected by it. As the quote details, we cannot do much about the information we receive, because we have no context in which to understand it. The headline itself is the full context of a story, so that we might develop an opinion about, say, a country in the Middle East without even realizing we don't know what language its citizens speak or what their daily lives entail. What's implicit is Postman's understanding of the importance of news – it can inspire action within a context, lead people to make decisions that can manifest either in elections or more immediately, through community action. Decontextualized information takes away this power of the news. There is no realistic action we can take, and so we cease to think of information as even having that power. This, Postman argues, is a significant decline from news in the Age of Exposition or earlier.

"Together, this new ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world – a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child's game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining."

p. 77

Here, Postman speaks of the age in which telegraphy and photography intersected to create a new epistemology, but this description can equally connect to his depiction of the Age of Show Business. News pops into our lives as simply one sensational headline that demands to be soon replaced, so that we are "endlessly" entertained but hardly affected. This description can relate to the general lifestyle of the current age, in which we can change channels or close tabs after quickly skimming an article or seeing a picture, in order to seek totally unrelated information. We are constantly entertained, but perhaps unaware that we have not truly retained or considered the import of anything we see. Information of any sort – religious, political, educational – is one of many pieces of our days full of entertainment, and therefore has little potential to truly affect us or inspire action or change.

"The singe most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called "teleVISION." And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures – millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the contents of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodates the values of show business."

p. 92

Postman does not disguise his belief that a media will force its epistemology on a culture, and he here explains what specifically requires television to enforce an epistemology of entertainment. The screen reaches its full potential with quick editing, multiple camera shots, colorful spectacle, and breakneck pacing. Therefore, everything presented on it will either succumb to or battle somewhat fruitlessly against those demands of the medium. This is what leads to the "Now…this" model of both news and contemporary discourse. It is useful to consider Postman's understanding of television, since it serves as an apt metaphor for the world he argues it has wrought, one of unceasing entertainment and incessant information, all decontextualized and all dedicated to pleasure. This is the media and the world he fears has led us into a dystopia in which we are "amusing ourselves to death."

"In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial…the television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital."

p. 126

Though he is here speaking specifically about the influence of the television on American politics, Postman's consideration of the television commercial helps to understand his attack on television. He argues that the television commercial sells products not by making claims about them, but by constructing small mythologies or parables that touch at what the companies believe American consumers feel is missing from their lives. Commercials attempt not to sell a product, but a commoditized idea – a nice suit is bought not for fibers but for respectability; an organic food is bought not for its healthy color but for its perceived correctness; a car is bought for its sex appeal. Commercials no longer make claims that can be refuted but instead offer images that appeal to us, allow us a chance to entertain ourselves and others by presenting a depiction of the person we want to be. And yet Postman's overall argument is not that advertising has gone wrong, but that our general discourse has. He worries that politicians and religious figures now market themselves through "image," and as such, we no longer have agency to help ourselves through the great institutions of religion and government. Instead, we are simply caught in a spectacle of entertainment that robs us of agency. The basic tenet of capitalism – that we can choose what we want – has been destroyed in favor of a more psychological epistemology of entertainment that is harming our society.

"This is why I think it accurate to call television a curriculum. As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that, and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it."

p. 146

When trying to convince someone of a harmful effect, it is usually smart to claim it threatens children. Postman does so here - not with the cliché argument that 'television rots the brain,' but rather with the suggestion that television is in fact forcing its epistemology on new generations. Not only will they be influenced primarily by television, but they will be influenced to expect the rest of their lives to subscribe to television's demand for entertainment. In this chapter, Postman specifically addresses education, but in calling televisions a curriculum, he further suggests that all the problems detailed in the rest of the book – the inability to understand claims or rationally create change through information – are being reinforced by a generation whose seminal years are spent learning that all important discourse should be delivered as entertainment. The ability of the schools to counteract this is decreasing, unless of course the schoolrooms imitate the discourse of television to entertain the children, at which point the battle is doubly lost.