Postman begins by recalling how the year 1984 brought no collapse of "liberal democracy," despite the warning perpetuated by George Orwell's novel 1984 (xix). However, he then reminds us how Aldous Huxley had suggested an utterly distinct type of dystopia from Orwell's. Where Orwell warned that an "externally imposed oppression" was imminent, Huxley feared that society would collapse under the oppression of "technologies that undo [our] capacities to think," and which we would celebrate rather than fear (xix).
Simply put, Orwell worried that information and truth would be suppressed, whereas Huxley worried the truth would become irrelevant in the face of "distractions." Postman offers that his book is "about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right" (xx).
Chapter 1 – The Medium is the Metaphor
At the beginning of Chapter 1, Postman traces out the main shape of the argument he will present in his book.
Postman suggests that different American cities have served as the primary metaphor for the U.S. at different times in its history. At one point, Boston was central for its revolutionary significance. Later, New York became the primary symbol because of its reputation as melting pot. Chicago had its turn during the days of industrial expansion.
He suggests that American culture is at present (the book was written in 1985) best symbolized by Las Vegas, which is "entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment" (3). For the first time, he proposes the book's primary thesis – that in the current climate, "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment," which has put us in a position where we are "slowly amusing ourselves to death" (3-4). He speaks of how Ronald Reagan, then President, was a Hollywood actor, and lists other political figures who seem to seek celebrity as much as gravitas, who worry more about their weight and appearance than their ideas. Similarly, newscasters are defined as much by their attractiveness as by their intelligence, and are paid exorbitant salaries because of their appeal.
After proposing the business premise that the "quality and usefulness [of products] are subordinate to the artifice of their display" as self-evident, he lists examples of figures we assume are concerned with seriousness but who instead fashion themselves as entertainers (4). Religious figures like Billy Graham make jokes alongside comedians like Red Buttons, and Dr. Ruth gladly accepts that she dispenses psychology as entertainment.
Postman is well aware that he is not offering a fresh critique, but that many other writers and critics have discussed the "dissolution of public discourse in America" (5). However, he does believe that they have missed the true cause of the decline – whether they attribute it to capitalism, neurosis, moral decadence, or greed and ambition. Though he acknowledges that these myriad theories offer much wisdom and that he can certainly not present the entire truth, Postman believes his approach is more rooted in the nature of human communication.
He introduces his hypothesis by presenting the Platonic notion that the ideas any society expresses will be dictated by the forms in which it communicates them. He defines a culture's "conversation" metaphorically, as representing "all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages." He believes that the forms of discourse necessarily "dictate" the type of content that is contained within that discourse (6).
To ground his more theoretical assertions, he presents several examples. Because Native Americans were confined to long-distance communication through smoke signals, they could likely not have had philosophical discourse. The limitations of the form affect what can be realistically communicated through it. As another example, President Taft was a famously fat man, one who could not likely be elected today because of his appearance, which could be off-putting as a television image. However, in a world without television, political arguments had more currency than appearance, which was not often transmitted to the general public.
As perhaps his most important example, he proposes that "the news of the day" could not exist without proper media to give it expression (7). Even though atrocities have always occurred in human history, they were not a facet of a person's everyday life until the telegraph (and subsequent technologies) made it possible for them to be communicated at a faster rate. At one time, these atrocities would have been communicated as part of a larger context because the effort required to tell them would have been greater – now, the atrocity can be related in and of itself, in a moment. This idea of decontextualized information will be central to later chapters.
In short, Postman wishes to trace how the "Age of Typography" has turned into the "Age of Television," and how the latter age requires all communication to take the form of entertainment (8). He acknowledges his debt to Marshall McLuhan, who through his famous works like The Medium is the Massage posited that a culture can be best understood through its "tools for conversation" (8). As evidence of McLuhan's assertion, Postman points out how God's Second Commandment concerns the regulation of idols and imagery, which suggests that even the Israelites understood that the way people spoke to one another and symbolized their experiences has a direct correlation to the nature and quality of their culture. Iconography had to be outlawed so that a new God, one with an inner rather than symbolic, external quality, could enter their lexicon.
In other words, though language is the primary and most direct form of human communication, we communicate through several other mediums. This is the basis of McLuhan's theory, though Postman suggests that McLuhan was limited in suggesting that the medium was the "message" and offers that perhaps the medium is the "metaphor" for culture. A message suggests a clear statement, whereas metaphors work through "powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality." He suggests that our form of discourse works through "media-metaphors" which do not tell us what the world is like, but instead define the world without telling us anything at all. They limit and regulate what the world must be (10).
As evidence, he suggests that people are not usually aware of the way media affects them. He discusses the thinker Lewis Mumford, who noticed how a clock does not merely tell time, but rather enforces upon us the idea of "moment to moment" (11). The clock then serves as a metaphor for the way we look at the world – as one of moments turning into other moments, each disassociated from what comes before and after. The clock serves as a conversation man has with himself through technology. Postman then discusses Mumford's book Technics and Civilization, explaining how it shows the way the evolution of the clock manipulated the human understanding of time.
Likewise, the alphabet revolutionized the depth to which human thought and expression could progress. Because writing "freezes speech" in an unalterable form, it allows for one man's thoughts to inspire a critical reaction, to create an ongoing conversation that only deepens the perspectives of the original thought (12). Writing, too, is an instance of man conversing with himself through his given tools. It is not an extension of the written word – which is necessarily transient and lost in its moment – but rather a different form of communication altogether, one which lasts forever and is addressed to "no one and yet [to] everyone" (13).
Postman explains his digression as central to his purpose – to show how "our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics" (13). By proposing our media-metaphors as powerful forces that influence our means of thought, he means to say that our tools serve as a type of mind control. "Our metaphors create the content of our culture," and he means to reveal the effect of the media-metaphor of television on our minds (15).
Amusing Ourselves to Death has remained in-print and in-demand for so many decades in large part because of Neil Postman's accessible but authoritative tone. While he is certainly an academic who thinks in systematic ways, he writes this book for a general audience, and both his writing style and myriad examples conform to that. He often approaches intellectual ideas in an emotional manner, and never shies from heightening the stakes of the situation he describes. When he proposes a theme, it is not usually implicit and subtle, but instead becomes a consistent focus, and is backed up with many examples, the most central of which are discussed in the Summary.
Because his ideas are so explicitly and clearly presented, the analysis of this Note will generally aim not to restate the ideas, but rather to consider them in a larger context, and to provide information on the primary touchstones that he uses.
The most central touchstones are proposed in the Foreword – Orwell's 1984 vs. Huxley's Brave New World. It is useful to have a basic understanding of these novels, since Postman refers to them throughout the book. 1984 is a satire written in the early Cold War era, and proposes a dystopia wherein civilization is controlled by a powerful figure known as "Big Brother" who keeps tabs on people's everyday lives. Information is controlled and regulated, so that the public remains ignorant and tyranny can be assured. It is a seminal articulation of the paranoia that the world felt in the post-WWII era. In Brave New World, people are kept in line not through paranoia but through a drug called soma, which controlled pleasure. Tyranny is perpetuated by giving people what they want in controlled doses, so that they do not realize how fully they are being controlled.
As the author's son Andrew Postman illustrates in his introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary edition of the book, the author's device does have the feeling of being a "hook." In other words, it somewhat undercuts the substance of the book, working more as an engaging device than as a true expression of the book's ideas. One could even argue that Postman is somewhat deigning to use the tools he criticizes. He wants his book to be entertaining, to compete with the television world he describes, and so he bases his central premise around a frightening hook.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the younger Mr. Postman's critique, the use of this "hook" does suggest that Neil Postman sees the topic as having high stakes. He does not explicitly suggest that we live in a dystopic society, but by posing the question in this light, he suggests that a failure to act can have dire consequences. It is certainly a concession to an audience accustomed to dramatic stories – whereas an academic tome might often lack such pressing stakes and dramatic weight, Amusing Ourselves to Death announces its own importance by suggesting the direness of the situation.
What is most interesting about these touchstones is that Postman deliberately avoids, both in these opening chapters and throughout the book, any explicit political critiques. While he does express the direness of the situation, he never suggests the existence of any power structure that enforces these ideas for its own good. Whereas both Huxley and Orwell explored society's power dynamics, and how government and business classes used social order to maintain their supremacy, Postman sees not people or organizations, but the tools themselves as the oppressors. For him, both business and government are equal victims of the denigrated discourse that television media enforces. Whether Postman ignores these critiques in order to keep his book less incendiary, or whether he truly believes that the media-metaphor is indeed more powerful than those who wield it, is a question that will continue to be addressed in future Analysis sections.
Another way in which Postman both criticizes the drive towards entertainment while using it himself is through his frequent use of celebrity examples. Certainly, this is to be expected considering the book's subject, but he makes masterful use of well-recognized figures, from Dr. Ruth to President Reagan, to illustrate his point. By not focusing solely on academic figures, he allows the reader to relate to his examples, to consider his ideas in light of the reader's own experience. Not many of us have read Lewis Mumford, but we have all seen Billy Graham on television. He allows the reader to consider the ideas in his own sphere, in effect offering the type of conversation that he proposes typographic communication allows.
Perhaps the books' most prevalent theme is that of appearance, or form. As he explains in depth, and will continue to explain, his basic query is about how ideas are not only recognized - but are in fact shaped - by their appearance; the way that an idea is communicated is central to what the idea actually communicates. Postman proposes this idea both through palpable examples – newscasters are listened to because they are attractive – and through theoretical ideas – we understand time as a progression of moment-to-moment because a clock tells us time in a specific way. Ultimately, Postman is a sociologist and not an entertainer, and the systematic way in which he uses history towards his purpose confirms this designation.
The final touchstone that should be understood is Marshall McLuhan. Most famous for his works The Medium is the Massage and Understanding Media, McLuhan is a giant in the field of media theory, for having been almost prophetic in anticipating the way our culture would be overtaken by a surplus of information. These works, written soon after WWII, express the conceit and shape of the Internet by suggesting that we have learned to receive our information in a decontextualized way, through images and connections rather than perfected thoughts. In other words, McLuhan argued that we should identify a message through the way it is told. What Postman adds is that the way it is told necessarily dictates the way we think. He does not believe the medium can be controlled, but rather that the medium reinforces its own centrality and importance. See the Additional Content section of this Note for more on McLuhan.
Finally, one question that is worth exploring when reading Amusing Ourselves to Death is to what extent the book remains relevant. Certainly, it is largely concerned with a television world, whereas the current generation's media-metaphor is better identified as the Internet and digital communication. Interestingly, these first chapters only mention television in passing, instead focusing on laying out the ideas with which he will explore the symptoms of the television age. For that reason, all of Postman's ideas in these early chapters are worth applying to our day. To what extent does the advent of instantaneous communication and information dictate the way we understand people? Does social media insist that we understand a person by the details he ore she chooses to share? These questions are certainly relevant today, and if nothing else, the schemata for asking them laid out in this first chapter is a useful tool for discussion.