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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary

by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a work that aims to both explore complicated ideas and market itself to the general public. Its basic thesis is that television has negatively affected the level of public discourse in contemporary America, and it considers media in a larger context to achieve that. As such, it follows a rather schematic organization, in which Postman introduces his basic thesis, conducts a background explanation of the suppositions on which the thesis is founded, and then presents the thesis in more detail.

The book opens with a Foreword that examines two literary dystopic visions – that of George Orwell, who in 1984 warned about a tyrannical state that would ban information to keep the public powerless, and that of Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World depicted a population too amused by distractions to realize that they had been made powerless. Postman wishes to reveal how discourse inspired by television has turned our world into a more Huxleyan one.

Part I is concerned mostly with background and historical analysis. In Chapter 1, "The Medium is the Metaphor," Postman introduces the concept of the "media-metaphor." Simply put, he posits that every civilization's discourse is limited by the biases of the media it employs. He suggests, for instance, that an oral culture will speak of the world differently than one that has printed language. It is all an introduction for his basic examination, which aims to show how the television age is undergoing a rapid transformation in the wake of the relatively new media of television.

In Chapter 2, "Media as Epistemology," Postman examines how any civilization's media will determine the way in which it defines truth. He believes that there is no universal way to know truth, but rather that a civilization will identify truth largely based on its forms of communication. A primitive oral culture will put great stock in a man who remembers proverbs, since truth is passed on through such stories, whereas a culture of the written word will find oral proverbs quaint and the permanence of written precedent far more important. What concerns Postman about the television is not that it provides non-stop entertainment; in fact, he enjoys this aspect of it. What concerns him is that it has limited our discourse to where all of our serious forms of discussion have turned into entertainment. Television has influenced the way we live off the screen.

In Chapters 3 through 5, Postman examines the way that "Typographic America" influenced the "Typographic Mind." He discusses the period between the colonial period through about the mid nineteenth century, first illustrating how the population at the time of the nation's birth was markedly literate and as a result was accustomed to approaching the world from a rational perspective. Because the written word (and oratory that was based upon its form) is based around a series of rational propositions that challenge a reader or audience to judge them as true or false, the entire society was founded around the idea of rational discourse. This era transitioned into the "The Peek-a-Boo World" with the invention of the telegraph and the widespread reproduction of photographs in the first half of the 1800s. With a sudden access to instantaneous information no longer limited by geographic distance, and the influx of images to accompany information, society slowly became less driven by understanding the context of information, and more involved with collected irrelevant information divorced from its particular context. The more deliberate process of rational discourse began to break down.

Part II discusses the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse by prizing entertainment as the standard of truth. In Chapter 6, "The Age of Show Business," he discusses how "The Age of Exposition" that defined Typographic America has been replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. Entertainment has become the content of all of our discourse, so that the message itself is less important than the entertainment value of its delivery. He examines the inherent biases that television has as a medium – it demands rapid-fire editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation –and worries that our world has yet to truly consider these inherent biases in discussing television.

In Chapter 7, "Now…This," Postman uses the "news of the day" to provide a metaphor for how we now receive all information. He suggests that the chapter's title - taken from a common phrase used in television news reports - assumes disconnectedness between all information. The most horrific story only gets a short bit of attention, and then is separated from the next story. There is no time for gravity or consideration, and the entertaining aspects of news – unemotive, attractive newscasters, pleasant music, clever transitions - only reinforce the idea that the information we receive is not to be considered in the context of our lives. As such, we are no longer inspired to action by the news we receive; we are only driven to develop opinions on it.

In Chapters 8 through 10, Postman examines other modes of important public discourse that have been denigrated to pure entertainment under the media-metaphor of television. Chapter 8, "Shuffle Off to Bethlehem," examines how religion has become an empty spectacle on television, which lacks the power to deliver a truly religious experience. Chapter 9, "Reach Out and Elect Someone," examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. As a result, people no longer vote what is best for them, but rather vote what they are told they lack in their lives. Chapter 10, "Teaching as an Amusing Activity," explores how education is progressively becoming an entertaining activity, without any awareness of the fact that using television and its methods to teach do not educate children how to love learning, but rather how to love television.

Postman ends his work with "The Huxleyan Warning," in which he returns to the basic premise that Aldous Huxley was right. He restates his thesis and then offers some suggestions to battle the problems he details, though he admits they are unlikely to work because we are so saturated with television, and because culture does not tend to turn against its technologies. However, the most important thing he suggests is that we become aware of what television is, of its inherent biases, so that we can control it rather than let it control us.

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