It seems almost unnecessary to state, but Media is the primary theme of Amusing Ourselves to Death. One could conceivably argue that media as a general theme is more important to the book than television itself is. Whereas the book is centered on an examination of television, Postman's major point seems to be that we must understand the way media informs our public discourse. It takes almost half of the book for him to directly address television, while the first half is focused on print and oratory based cultures. Overall, in the final chapter, his best advice for navigating the difficulties posed by television is that we must become aware of the way media informs us. The fear is that media controls us, when we should control it.
The importance of news seems paramount to Postman. In every culture he describes, he considers the way in which news about life informed and affected people. Therefore, he is perturbed by the "Now…this" culture of news in the Age of Show Business. News has, he argues, becomes inane, irrelevant, and decontextualized information. We collect news stories divorced from any context, much less any context that directly affects our lives. Instead, news becomes merely an impetus for us to develop opinions, which in turn become news themselves. Ultimately, his fears about news echo his general thesis – news has lost its power to inform our lives and inspire action, and has instead become a form of entertainment that diverts us rather than informs or inspires us.
Even before the chapter largely devoted to religious discourse in the age of television, Postman employs multiple examples of religious degradation in his contemporary world. Postman clearly respects religion as an important facet of human history and civilization, and he in this way reveals an innate humanism. He believes that we can ultimately transcend our existence through the spirituality allowed by religion. However, he also fears that its basic tenets have been totally compromised by the discourse inspired by television. Postman makes a point to praise the potential in humanity to induce a spiritual experience so that he can more effectively show how television dampens this potential.
In arguing for the high stakes of his thesis, Postman focuses on the way our political discourse has devolved. He implicitly argues throughout the book that media – whether in oral, written, or televised form - should serve to keep us informed so that we can take direct action to improve our lives and world. We should be willing to vote for our self-interest, and we obviously need proper information in order to best gauge which political candidate represents our self-interest in any election. His fear is that the discourse inspired by television has created an era of "image politics," in which we not only do not vote for the candidate who best represents us, but we also lack any idea of what those candidates actually stand for. Instead, television turns candidates into images into which we pour our fears, so that the important discourse of politics never even takes place.
Throughout the book, Postman avoids making too many direct claims about the public's culpability in its own duping. Instead, he implies that the public of any civilization is often helpless before the media-metaphor that defines it. In the same way that the public of Typographic America was led to expect and understand complicated phrases and dialectics, so do the citizens of the Age of Show Business learn to seek entertainment as the sole important means of discourse. Though he avoids ever contrasting the general public with larger, richer entities that one could argue control the discourse for their advantage, Postman does suggest that the public is ultimately helpless against the forces wrought by media. His suggestions in the final chapter for improving our relationship with television seem to belie this interpretation (by suggesting we could take action to change it) - though even he acknowledges that the suggestions are likely to fail.
Though Postman does not directly confront the way advertising works until "Reach Out and Elect Someone," his understanding of advertising affects his arguments throughout. Advertising once had a rational component in Typographic America; a proprietor made a claim in language that the consumer could choose to accept or reject. So important is this premise to the supply-and-demand laws of capitalism that the United States has made false advertising illegal. However, advertising in the television age no longer follows that model, instead offering commoditized ideals. It cannot be called false advertising because it does not make a claim at all. Instead, it works as a type of psychology, creating pseudo-myths and basic parables that attempt to touch on what we fear we are missing from our lives. Advertising has become another way to entertain us, by convincing us we can fill our missing desires if we merely buy a product (or elect a candidate, or embrace a televangelist's religion, etc.) In effect, Postman's argument suggests that all discourse has become a type of advertising in the television age, selling commoditized ideas rather than actual facts or details.
A term that means "concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge," epistemology is central to Postman's conception of media (17). He believes that a civilization's media-metaphor directly impacts, if not controls, the way that civilization defines truth. A culture based in oral tradition will consider proverbs of highest value, while a writing-based culture will favor the permanence of the written word. This basic argument, presented in Chapter 2, informs the way that Postman deconstructs the effect television has had on our age. His fear is that it has inspired an epistemology wherein we do not accept anything unless it is presented as entertainment. News must be delivered by someone who appears to be trustworthy, or teachers should be entertaining if they are to be considered competent. What he truly argues against in this book is a particular epistemology, one he believes we need to recognize and self-correct before we can no longer control the media of television and it leads us to amuse ourselves to death.
Amusing Ourselves to Death Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Amusing Ourselves to Death is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.