Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah recommended this book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Conveniently for us, books that convey such critical ideas often times are summarized by reviewers, though reading the actual book of course is always more enlightening for most folks.

Here I selected two reviews which summarize it well, and what a relevant message, despite being written in 1985.

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is an amazingly written and well-argued book. As Postman notes: In the Victorian Era (mid-late 1800s), novelist Charles Dickens had as much fame as The Beatles in 1960, Michael Jackson in 1980, or Brad Pitt in 2014. The farm boy in the late 1700s carried a pamphlet of Thomas Paine’s writings in his back pocket. Today, school-children carry iphones with pictures of Eminem (boy) or Taylor Swift (girl). In the mid-1800s, Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A. Douglas debated in public FOR HOURS on the dire issues of their time. Today, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have bite-sized debates where one side speaks for 1 minute and the other side gets a 30-second rebuttal.
Clearly, the people then were different from the people now in terms of mainstream intelligence. The reason, Postman argues, is that the people in Dickens’ era were children of “The Age of Typography,” and the people today (us) are the children of “The Age of Show Business,” or “The Age of Television.” Reading was life to people in the older days; watching television is life to us now. And television, however entertaining, cannot be anything but sheer junk because it works through images, sensationalism, and emotional gratification. Writing, on the other hand, requires patience, detachment, memory, and reason. The result is that we are dumber than our ancestors. Incredulous? Pick up the book and let Postman prove it to you.
This book was written in 1985, but don’t be fooled; it still wields enormous relevance today — The chapter titled, “Peek-a-Boo-World” as well as the “Information-to-action-ratio” theory outlined in it are particularly pertinent regarding the modern-day use of the internet, especially with portable laptops, tablets, and cellphones. With those gadgets, we have become, in short, a nation buried in triviality, as Postman predicted. Furthermore, television viewership today has not decreased with the rise of the internet, iphones, and such. On the contrary, studies show that we still watch as much television as before, despite the alarmingly rising rate of electronic use. In this book, Postman focuses on politics, religion, education, and the news. These, he says, are serious topics that are downgraded to mere amusement because television, by design, works by making everything amusing. In effect, we come to expect everything in life to be entertaining when, in actuality, some things must be endured. Again, I urge you to read this book carefully. I’ve read it four times. It’s ideas have allowed me to wean myself away from television and on to typography. Let it have the same effect on you. (Source)


1. The chief purpose of mass media news is not to inform, but to sell entertainment. It is actually “News Entertainment.”

2. To their own benefit, the highest goal of the majority of “news” providers is to convince you to be a faithful member of their audience.

3. Mass media communicates in images and sound bites. Words, substance, and facts are neither conducive to their purpose nor desirable.

4. The bulk of what passes for “the news” is neither rooted in reality nor relevant to our daily lives.

5. Such “news” providers create their biased views of reality and attempt to convince their audience members to buy into it.

6. Many folks have long ago stopped thinking critically about what is presented as “truth in the media.” Instead, they have latched on to a feel-good moral position that negates their personal responsibility to legitimately research history, context, facts, and moral/political/social principles.

Are we willing to do our own homework, or will we remain content to passively receive what is fed to us by commercial “news” providers? Are we naive enough to rely on “truth in the media”?

I pray not!

—Reflections on the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman (Source)


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