Amusing Ourselves to Death.

· March 21, 2021

The most prescient book I have read. And also the best title on any book I have read.


Postman is probably glad he is dead.

Neil Postman wrote this critique of the television back in the 1980s. His primary thesis was that, we, as a society are slowly killing coherent dialogue due to the propagation of mass media. In a lot of senses, the stance that Postman is taking maybe agreeable at face value, but Postman takes an extremist stance on the matter - he really hates the medium of TV. I can’t even imagine what Postman will think about the world we live in today.

Postman starts off building his argument by describing the times before visual media. Here he talks about how public discourse took place in the 1700s and 1800s - the public debates, the nuance is discussions and the public enthusiasm for long form exposition. To be completely honest, this is the part of the book that I found a little too long winded. It is very USA-centric, exalting the various public figures prominent in American history. This portion went on for way too long, especially for someone like me who does not share the same enthusiasm for Americana that Postman shares. Despite all this, there are a few good points he brings up on the history of public discourse before the visual era. The major idea that I took away is that the medium of discourse shapes the discourse itself.

The book really picks up after Postman starts talking about the advent of the printing press and the television era. The typography era popularised books as the primary medium for sharing information and public discourse. Postman argues that only after the invention of the telegraph, public discourse slowly started shifting towards the meaningless.

Irrelevance, incoherence and impotence.

The telegraph meant that the world became a smaller place. Information traveled much faster, and as a consequence, the noise in the information increased exponentially. The word “knowledge” itself started to become redefined. What is knowledge? Knowledge used to be something that you had a deep contextual understanding in. Post the telegraph era, knowledge and information started to become more decontextualised. It became more irrelevant. We stopped letting the news and the information that we consume affect our daily actions in any relevant way.

In many ways I found Twitter to be something of a parallel to the telegraph. Each tweet is this bit of decontextualised information - irrelevant, incoherent and impotent. I found this critique on the meaning of knowledge, and the importance of meaning itself, very interesting.

Soon after this, Postman gets to the meat of his thesis - we as a society are amusing ourselves to death. Television has changes the path of public discourse. As mentioned earlier, Postman truly believes that the medium of discourse shapes the discourse. With this idea as his foundation, Postman breaks down the medium of the television to be ill suited for any meaningful discourse. One of the most contrarian stands that Postman takes is how shows like “Sesame Street”, which made education fun for children, are actually more harmful than say, some reality TV show. He posits that television for education builds its programming on a few basic tenets:

  1. The content should not perplex the audience
  2. The content should have no prerequisites.
  3. The content should avoid long expositions.

What is education devoid of perplexity, prerequisites and exposition? Entertainment. We are fooling ourselves into thinking we are educating ourselves. Postman also says that the reason why television is so harmful is that it is competing against typographic media, not complementing it. I couldn’t agree with Postman more on this point. He is a very eloquent writer, and the way he builds up his almost luddite sounding arguments is really fun to read.

Closing thoughts.

There is this whole portion on religion and television that I found mostly uninteresting. That, and the excessive America-centrism in the opening chapters are things that I didn’t enjoy too much in this book. But, there are a lot of excellent ideas in this book that are very applicable even today. This book has aged really well. It makes you think about where we are going as a society, the way various media are shaping how and, more importantly, what we talk about. One could always argue that the television became hugely popular, and yet, here we are as a people. This is something that even I thought of, but one cannot deny that we have set ourselves back in many ways by allowing our contemporary public discourse to degrade to memes and 5 second sound bytes. This ties in really well with Tristan Harris’ thesis on how we are effectively reducing the public IQ by allowing social media to shape public discourse. I highly recommend watching this interview with him on the Joe Rogan podcast - it will change the way you look at today’s mediums of communication:

Neil Postman was way ahead of his time. He knew the value of the medium of public discourse, and he perfectly recognized what we are doing to ourselves - we are amusing ourselves to death.

I give this book a strong 7/10.

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