It does not often occur to people that the root of many of society’s problems today is the medium through which
these problems are presented and discussed. Yet when looking at the way people obtained their information prior
to this century and how the issues of the day were discussed, the stark contrast between then and now becomes
so clear that it’s a wonder that we barely notice what’s been happening. The crisis is the gradual dumbing-down
of our discourse since the dawn of the information age, and the treatment of the serious issues of our time as
nothing more than fodder for entertainment. Television is the biggest culprit, and those of us who grew up on
television have been damaged in ways that are now so universally common that they go unnoticed. Neil Postman’
s examination of this problem in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is a dire warning of the
consequences of living in a culture dominated by television, and while over 20 years have passed since this book
was written, the introduction of the internet has made this work even more relevant today than it was then.
Postman’s central claim has to do with a comparison between two very different imagined Utopian societies in
literature from the earlier half of the century. The first is Orwell’s dark authoritarian society from 1984, while the
other is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are not oppressed by external forces but have
simply allowed themselves to be brainwashed into believing themselves to be happy. Postman’s central assertion
is that Orwell got it wrong while Huxley got it right. We have not become slaves to higher authority, but we have
allowed our society to deteriorate into a spiritually and intellectually dead environment.
The proposition that constitutes the foundation of Postman’s claim is that the media we use determines the form of
our discourse. We may be discussing the same issue today that we were in 1808, but we will be discussing it
much differently now than we would have then. 19th century people lived in an age dominated by the printed
word, and their public discourse reflected this. Today, show business dominates our culture, and the
sophistication of our discourse has suffered as a result. It is not what we talk about but the way in which we
talk—even think—about the issues that has changed. The content of our culture has shifted from the written
word with its inherent appeal to rationality, to the electronic medium of television which appeals almost exclusively
to the passions.
This in itself would be harmless, and Postman is quick to point out that he is not condemning television in general
or any of the countless trash programs that are designed purely for entertainment and are understood not to be
taken seriously. What concerns Postman are the programs that purport to seriously present things of significance,
such as news, religious broadcasts, and educational programming. The inherent bias of television towards
entertainment has turned all of these previously serious areas of our culture into branches of show business, and
public life suffers dearly as a result.
Before going into the details of how and why this is, Postman takes us back to the 19th century and uses the
debates between Lincoln and Douglas to illustrate the vast gaping chasm between discourse as it was then and
how it is now. The famous debates between Lincoln and Douglass each lasted three hours long, each devoted to
one issue, and divided between an hour of speech, an hour and a half of response, and a half-hour rebuttal. What
makes this even more striking is that these debates were actually shorter than most normal debates of the time!
Crowds would gather around these two men and listen to them speak at length about one subject, carefully
constructing logical arguments and parsing through each others’ claims in true analytical fashion. The 19th century
mind was habituated to a literary form of oratory, which unlike pictures and film has propositional content—one
can say of it that it is either true or false, which is not the case when it comes to images. Even advertising was
purely literary, designed to appeal to the understanding as opposed to desire.
Prior to the invention of telegraphy, news was mostly local because the speed of information was only as fast as
the fastest train. But once information could be transmitted at the speed of light from one part of the country to
another, the Age of Exposition began to crumble and give way to the Age of Show Business. Now that the news
came from everywhere, it was mostly irrelevant to people’s daily lives, and things have been this way ever since.
A horrible accident that has taken place a thousand miles away may be interesting information but it has no effect
on what a person will do that day. The more information that one receives, the more irrelevant it all becomes.
“Facts push other facts into and out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation” (70).
We now had access to scores of information, but it was all mostly useless information.
The addition of photographs to news stories only served to obscure this fact. If I read a story about a train wreck
in a place I’ve never heard of, I can clearly understand that this information is trivial and meaningless to me. But if
there is a photograph of the train attached to it, suddenly it seems that I have received actual information. While
my mind has no context for the story, the picture gives it the illusion of context. It is not just a train that crashed,
but that train—the one in the picture. This “pseudo-context” has only one use: amusement. As Postman writes, it
is “the last refuge of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance” (76). Indeed we are now so completely accustomed
to our information being placed in a pseudo-context that we virtually no longer recognise its irrelevance at all. The
question of how television and the tsunami of information that comes to us through its airwaves affects our minds
has never lost its importance, but it has receded into the background and become almost invisible.
In Part II, Postman addresses the questions he feels we must be asking: “What is television? What kinds of
conversation does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it
produce?” (84) By representing our world with programs designed based on their entertainment value, television
makes entertainment the natural form of representation for all experience. “Television is our culture’s principal
mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes
the model for how the world is properly to be staged” (92). Because television must present its content through
images, it is in the nature of the medium to suppress the content of ideas to accommodate the requirements of
visual interest. As a result, our entire worldview is hopelessly distorted.
Naturally, the worst offenders are the news programs. Each story is juxtaposed between other stories that have
nothing to do with it, with the phrase “Now…this” often the only transition. According to Postman, “Now…this”
is a new type of conjunction in language—one that does not connect anything to anything but rather separates
everything from everything. The newscasters themselves are judged by how much “credibility” they project, a
purely ethereal quality having nothing to do with the veracity of what they are reporting. Thus television restores
the fallacy that the ultimate truth of a proposition does not depend on its content but on who is speaking it.
The fact that news stories are often condensed to less than one minute completely prevents the audience from
taking them seriously. Add to this the juxtaposition of commercials in between serious news stories, and the result
is the cultivation of an insane epistemology whereby we are conditioned to believe that gruesome stories of horror
and death are all greatly exaggerated and not to be taken too seriously. In likening our current society to that of
Brave New World, Postman asserts that television is our own version of soma, the drug that numbs people to the
soul-crushing realities of the world.
Perhaps the most absurd area of human thought to be taken over and transformed by television is religion. No
longer is religion the realm of higher ideals, sacred ritual, and intimate soul-searching, but it has been hijacked by
televangelists who present religion, like everything else on television, as a form of entertainment. They argue that
teaching the word of God through television is necessary because it allows “the word” to reach so many people,
but they do not take into account just how badly that “word” is distorted. Changing the medium through which a
message is given invariably changes the meaning of the message. The words of Christ as spoken by Jesus himself
thousands of years ago does not have the same meaning as the same words presented by a preacher on “The 700
Adding to the disconnect is the very location of the TV-set itself; a person can not reach a religious state of mind
in one’s living room, bedroom, or kitchen as easily as he or she can in a church or other place of worship. The
TV-screen itself is also so saturated with profane and commercial events that it is almost impossible for it to be a
meaningful frame for sacred events. Furthermore, a television viewer, unlike a church congregant, is free to
change the channel. Any television programmer knows that to keep the viewer watching they must offer
something the viewer wants. Neither Christ nor Mohammed nor Buddha nor any other religious teacher has
offered people anything more than what they needed, but television preachers are forced to offer viewers what
they want. Finally, because it is their face on the screen and their show, God plays the role of a minor character.
With religious programming it is ultimately not the abstract concept of the Divine Creator to be worshipped, but
the preacher himself on the screen.
Perhaps the most damaging thing about television is the impact it has had on our political process, which is
intimately related to the character of TV commercials, which Postman claims are the fundamental metaphor for
political discourse in America. For one thing, commercials undermine capitalism. By manufacturing desires rather
than offering products to meet genuine needs, commercials destroy what is essential for capitalism to work: that
both seller and buyer act as mature, rational, well-informed agents capable of making decisions of mutual self-
interest. Commercials also foster an epistemology that makes us believe that all problems are solvable, solvable
fast, and solvable through technology. Clearly, such a format can easily undermine the democratic process as well.
Politicians can no longer be merely capable, intelligent, worldly individuals with clear positions on the issues and
plans to make this country better, but they must be celebrities, concerned less with their actual plans and positions
and almost exclusively with their own image. The politician does not offer an image of himself on television, but
he offers himself as an image of the audience. The audience usually votes for the candidate who most reminds
them of themselves, even if it is against their own self-interest. People used to vote for a party with little concern
over who the nominee was, but with the rise of the politician-as-celebrity people often ignore the party and vote
only for the person, even if that person’s party does not represent his own interests. The self-interest that
accounts for the voter’s choice is no longer concrete but psychological.
Television also promotes a kind of widespread cultural amnesia. When our discourse was dominated by the
written word, the past was a very real force and important events tended to have far-reaching, enduring effects.
History is contained in the very essence of literature, as every word, sentence, and paragraph are continuously
there, able to be read, re-read, and be referred back to at any time. By contrast, television is an exclusively
present-centred medium, with images popping onto the screen for a few seconds and then disappearing, never to
be seen again. There is no longer any real need for censorship, as information is not around long enough to have a
real effect. The problem is not that there is too little access to information, but that there is too much information,
and the more information we have the more irrelevant it all becomes. And if all of our information is in the form of
images on a screen, once those images no longer show up on the screen we are no longer concerned with it, even
if the events are still going on and nothing has been resolved.
Postman’s final indictment of television is its effect on education. As you might have guessed, television had
turned education into a form of entertainment as well. Programs like “Sesame Street” may present the same
content as a child will encounter in the classroom, but in a vastly different context—one designed exclusively to
keep the child’s interest. As Postman argues, the context of a lesson may be more important than the content.
Though “Sesame Street” claims to be an ally in the classroom it may turn out to be more of an adversary;
“Sesame Street” does not teach children to love the classroom, but to love television.
TV’s influence over our culture has taken control of education by cultivating the idea in the minds of children and
teachers alike that education is supposed to be entertaining. A child is more likely to get bored in class if the
lesson is not as fun as the shows he sees on television. Most teachers can’t, don’t know how to, or don’t think
that they should, counter-act this, and instead of pushing back against TV’s influence will decide to embrace it
and use it as a teaching tool. Many teachers show educational programming in class, but there are a few basic
rules of educational television that limit its ability to teach effectively. First, the program can have no
prerequisites. Anyone watching must be able to understand what is being taught without any background in the
subject at all. Most effective learning is done in stages, with one lesson building on another, which is almost never
the case for a television program. Second, there can be no perplexity, meaning even if there are unanswered
questions and difficulties within the topic being explored by the program, they must be brushed over or ignored
entirely, as a confused or perplexed audience is likely to change the channel. Finally and most importantly, there
can be no exposition. The facts must be stated with as little analysis as possible, as the medium does not easily
lend itself to in-depth discussions and detailed debates. As a result of these rules, anyone learning about a topic
exclusively through television programming will never have more than the most basic, elementary understanding of
Postman has done an excellent job making the case that television has had a terrible over-all effect on our culture.
He has shown that Huxley’s warning was to be taken very seriously. “What Huxley teaches is that in the age of
advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one
whose countenance exudes suspicious and hate” (155). Yet we have been living with television for a century and
Postman acknowledges that the technology is not really going anywhere. It may be too late to reverse the effects
it has had. The only realistic suggestion he offers for how to turn this tide (admitting that getting everyone to stop
watching television is completely hopeless) is to educate people about its effects. If we could all be made to
understand what television does, and if children could be taught how to watch television and that it is incredibly
important to learn from written sources as well, we might slowly work our way back towards a culture in which
more intelligent discourse is common.
I would be quite interested to know Postman’s opinions about how the internet has affected public discourse, but
this technology was not around at the time this book was written, so we can only speculate. It would at first seem
to be a welcome breath of fresh air, as the majority of on-line discourse is done through the written word.
However, these words very rarely have much depth, almost never contain any detailed exposition or analysis, and
have at best only the faintest hint of propositional content. A new dominant medium has arrived on the scene, but
it seems to have arrived too late. Our intellect is already so compromised from the effects of a century of
television that the internet so far only seems to magnify the effects. We have gone from an over-abundance of
irrelevant information to an unfathomably gargantuan universe of irrelevant information, the capacity for which is
now infinite. Our news stories, where once condensed into minute-long segments of sound and images
interspersed with commercials, are now hyper-condensed into a single phrase with a bullet point next to it, a
thumbnail-sized photograph, and flashing advertisements all around. In such a context it does not seem as though
anything at all can be taken seriously. The internet has only taken the effects of television to absurd extremes,
and while the capability for it to become a glowing bastion of intellectual content and intelligent discussion and
debate most certainly exists, as of now it has become the new soma, hundreds of times stronger than the old.
And so Postman’s book is more relevant now than ever, at this critical time when we move from the Age of Show
Business to the Age of YouTube, when a new medium once again has taken over and is working its subtle effects
on our epistemology. It may be some time before the effects of this technology become clear, but by then they
will probably be so common and widespread as to be invisible, just like the effects of television on our minds
today. Postman’s prescription in 1985 is more necessary now than ever before: we must teach our children about
the differences in the inherent biases in different forms of media, and how to properly assimilate and contextualize
the blitzkrieg of information that assaults us every day. We must above all begin to realise that these are serious
times we live in, that without intelligent discussion and debate the problems that face us will never be solved, and
our societies will crumble and fall as we continue watching TV, surfing the web, and amusing ourselves to death.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman – 1985