Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

There’s No Business But Show Business

Media shapes viewpoints and thoughts. What you watch, read, and listen to will impact both your thought patterns and worldviews.

In today’s 24/7 news culture, you can spend the entire day in a perpetual state of fear and apocalypse. Wars, famine, cultural upheaval, deaths, plagues, and other disasters occur somewhere every day. If you live in a peaceful country these events have little bearing on how you live your life. Between television and social media, these events dominate our news cycle every day. Not even the weekend brings a reprieve to the vast amounts of information hawked over the digital airwaves.

In his 1985 books, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that television turned news, critical thought, and education into show business. When did you last watch a news segment that actually provided an in-depth, commercial free, extensive look into a single topic for more than thirty seconds?

Traditional media revolve around commercial breaks.  A deep dive into a complex story becomes difficult when breaking for segments about Whoppers, upcoming award shows, and the newest erectile dysfunction cure every five minutes.

I recognize the irony of writing about a book detailing the dangers of pure entertainment on a communication medium Postman might find worse for intellectual development than the television. One can only imagine the derision and sadness with which Postman would view Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, and this blog.

Written in 1985, yet still relevant today, Postman contends that our nation’s future will resemble the civilization depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World instead of the one predicted by George Orwell in 1984.While both stories represent a repressed future, they differ in the how society will arrive at a state of intellectual suppression.

In 1984, Orwell posits that a “Big Brother” style government will suppress speech and dictate social norms through misinformation, misdirection, and intentional distortion of information. Indeed, this future currently exists in China and the broken culture of Russia. Societies built around government, collectivism, and the “community good” are more likely to “progress” towards complete government control. As seen in the events currently unfolding in Hong Kong, Venezuela, and North Korea. Orwell’s future already exists, only not in western society.

When a population adopts ideas of individualism, limited government, and liberty, the binds of pure “Big Brother” control become harder to manifest. Yet a more sinister ideal can take root: death from amusement. Entertainment, by definition, seeks to provide a reprieve from the realities of existence. Compelling narratives packaged in 90 to a 130 minutes allows viewers to “experience” and “see” the world without ever having to leave home. We can even watch medical procedures on the television under the guise of “education”, but do you remember anything “educational”?

Even the realm of school revolves around screens nowadays. Parents send their children off to school with the latest in smartphone technology to spend all day sitting in front of a computer screen. Then kids come home and can amuse themselves by playing video games and watching something on YouTube, Tik Tok, the television, or Instagram. “White Collar” workers spend all day in front of computer screens to come home and “Netflix and Chill”. Families can sit together in the same room and never speak to one another.

You can spend an entire week in modern American Life without ever having to take a break from looking at a screen. Sleep becomes the last refuge from the dominance of the digital world. Entertainment exists everywhere all the time. Our current culture mimics the bleak world painted by Huxley in Brave New World, as argued by Postman.

Brave New World depicts a population completely enslaved to the idea of amusement, leisure, and laughter. Dark thoughts, philosophical arguments, linguistic gymnastics, and analytical discourse on various viewpoints cannot thrive in a culture obsessed with thirty second soundbites and manufactured celebrity “news”. Today’s population likely knows more about the inner workings of the Kardashian media empire than the history behind the assembly and division of power of the American form of government.

As Postman argued: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” [Excerpted from Amusing Ourselves to Death, 20th Anniversary Edition]

Through the advent of visual media, politics, religion, news, athletics, education, commerce, and our own personal lives have become a never-ending form of show business. Everything must vacillate between the two extremes of pure happiness and a bleak apocalypse. The rather boring mundanity of “reality” amuses no one, which is why we post pictures of our “exotic” vacation to a far-flung destination but never share about our clogged kitchen sink (unless it erupted into a disgusting geyser that we happened to capture on our phone).

Postman contends that the medium of communication shapes the culture. Communication on the internet and television thrives on graphics and images, not words.

The television exists to supply a never-ending stream of entertainment.

An average length shot on network television lasts 3.5 seconds. This means the eye never rests and your brain does not have time to process information since something new always appears around the corner. By keeping information tidily packaged and changing, the viewer achieves instantaneous emotional gratification. Good news always follows bad news, and vice versa so your emotions never stay focused on one feeling for any serious amount of time. News Anchors and pundits deliver pre-scripted tidbits because the act of thinking does not make compelling viewing. We would rather watch people argue over each other in raised voices for five minute than watch someone admit to not knowing anything about a topic and needing to think about a proper response. Thinking does not translate well into performance.

Postman argues that the rise of television transformed the political arena into another form of entertainment. We no longer pick candidates based upon values and political philosophy, but on how they “look” while presenting an idea. Style trumps substance.

Overall, Amusing Ourselves to Death, presents an interesting thesis on how western culture, political discourse, and our modes of relating with one another changed with the invention of television and instantaneous news.

How do you think digital media impacts your life, for the better and the worse?

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 2005, Penguin Books, ISBN: 9780143036531

Themes Explored: nonfiction, sociology, media, communications, psychology, politics, culture, philosophy

Synopsis: Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show business demands of the television age, we must recognize the ways in which the media shape our lives and the ways we can, in turn, shape them to serve out highest goals. (From Goodreads)