Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Insights and interesting reads delivered straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.

Book Notes: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985) is a book about the way a communication medium shapes public discourse. The book highlights two important mediums—writing and television—but the ideas are applicable to any communication medium be it telegraphy, photography, radio, the internet, or social media. One way to understand the biases of a medium are through the metaphors elicited by the medium; these metaphors “enforce their special definitions of reality…our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.” For example, one media metaphor central to television is the idea that “all the world is a stage.” The ideas communicated by television are shaped by this metaphor; television content has a tendency towards spectacle, showmanship, and style (to the detriment of characteristics like depth, exposition, and nuance).

This phenomenon is of little concern when television delivers entertainment for its own sake in the form of sitcoms and dramas (think “Friends” or “Game of Thrones”). The author argues that a bigger problem arises when television (or any medium for that matter) expands its role and becomes the arbiter for all kinds of knowledge. Every topic under the sun has found expression via television: news, music, sports, politics, religion, education, commerce. As a consequence, each subject has, over time, been inexorably turned into entertainment.

Consider “serious” TV news: how serious is it really? Consider that serious news is often delivered in short segments that leave insufficient time for context, nuance and careful consideration. Consider that many news programs regularly promote sensational and salacious stories. Consider that news reports regularly interrupt serious topics with banal commercials for McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Consider that the news anchors are invariably well coiffed and comely. And why is the evening news preceded by exhilarating theme music? Postman’s explanation is simple: television’s media metaphor shapes its content; the audience is not being informed, it is being entertained. Worst of all? We’re oblivious to it all.

Postman’s antidote is “media consciousness.” To be media conscious is to become aware of the medium itself. Individuals willing to question the status quo can make this happen (but it does require a curious and critical mind). One path to media consciousness is to ask questions: What is the nature of a medium? What are its assumptions? How is the medium shaping the message it communicates?

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in the 1980s when the television was arguably at its zenith in the American zeitgeist. Despite the three decades since publication, Postman’s book resonates as strongly as ever. Television’s cultural influence may have waned, but Postman’s media critique is applicable to any electronic medium. Substitute the internet or social media for Postman’s argument and you can observe a similar dynamic shaping our lives today.

Pros: Powerful message that forces you to reconsider your relationship with analog and digital media (and to question the very nature of the medium itself).

Cons: Book predates the rise of the internet, mobile computing and social networks. Would be fascinating to read the authors thoughts on these developments.

Verdict: 9/10

Notes & Highlights

Part I

Chapter 1: The Medium Is the Metaphor

  • Different cities in the USA have represented the zeitgeist at different points in our history. Today the representative city is Las Vegas.
  • Our current culture is one “in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business…”
  • In the 80s (when he wrote the book), the President of the USA was a former Hollywood actor. Today the President is a former reality-TV star and Twitter celebrity.
  • “Cosmetics have replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.”
  • Utility is subordinate to style and presentation.
  • Culture is conversation (a discourse or interaction). Conversations are conducted by symbolic modes (i.e. different media or representations of a conversation).
  • The forms and content of these conversations are regulated, constrained and shaped by the methods of communication (e.g. media).

    • Example: Smoke signals. As a medium, the limited capabilities (form) of smoke signals precludes complex expression.
    • Example: A person’s appearance is irrelevant to one’s ideas with a non-visual medium like books or radio. Appearances are important for visual mediums like television.
    • Television mediates discourse through imagery rather than printed words.
  • A medium can give rise to new types of content:

    • For instance “news of the day” is a development that arises form the telegraph which enabled rapid, non-geographically restricted distribution of new information.
    • “The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination.”
    • Consider the content-types that have been created by other digital mediums. For instance: the photographic “selfie,” the livestream, the tweet, etc.
  • Postman considers two key periods in American history:

    • The Age of Typography: The period from the 1600s-1950.
    • The Age of Television: : The period since 1950.
    • [Later in the book he uses a different binary classification: The Age of Exposition (pre-1900s) and The Age of Show Business (post-1900s).]
  • Speech is a fundamental, primal medium.

    • The grammatical features of a language influences cultural thought.
    • In turn, speech is reshaped by each new (and broadly) adopted communication medium (e.g. painting, hieroglyphs, alphabet, television).
    • McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”
    • Postman considers mediums as metaphors which “enforce their special definitions of reality…our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.”
  • As a general observation, people spend little time considering the impact or influence of their prevailing media metaphors (e.g. how their mind is organized, shaped and controlled by their media).

  • Lewis Mumford example of the invention of time-keeping (the clock).

    • This technology changed us into time-keepers, time-savers and now time-servers.
    • Instead of living based on seasons and daylight, we now live according to hours, minutes and seconds.
    • Our abstraction of time reduces our reliance on nature.
  • Impacts of written language:

    • Permanence of ideas.
    • Ability to subject ideas to greater scrutiny.
    • Standardization, best practices and optimization through grammar, logic, rhetoric.
    • Perceptual shift from auditory consumption (listening) to visual consumption (reading).
  • Shift from written media to digital media carries huge implications. Consider:

    • The symbolic forms of the medium. (e.g. images, text)
    • The source of information.
    • The quantity and speed of information.
    • The context in which the information is experienced.
  • “In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”

    • Example: eyeglasses. Defective vision can be fixed. Broader implications: humanity is not constrained by natural limitations; our bodies and minds can be improved upon.
    • Example: the microscope. The invisible becomes visible. Broader implications: There are countless phenomena that are hidden from direct sensory perception, but with the right tooling/methodology we can uncover these secrets.
  • The media metaphors of society drive the content of our culture.

Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology

  • The media-metaphor shift in America has resulted in a public discourse of “dangerous nonsense.”
  • Pre-1900s America was different: “generally coherent, serious and rational.”
  • Author makes it clear that his criticism of television (and similar media) is directed at epistemological questions, not aesthetics or capacity to entertain.
  • “Television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversation. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do.”
  • Epistemology: The study of the origins and nature of knowledge, including definitions of truth (and the sources of these definitions).

  • Resonance: A property whereby an idea or thing is imbued with universal significance and cultural meaning.

    • Example: Athens as an exemplar for intellectual excellence and early democratic ideals.
    • Example: Hamlet as a metaphor for “brooding indecisiveness.”
  • Media-metaphors have resonance.
  • “The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character...the written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual.”
  • Written words endure, spoken words are ephemeral. Greater veracity is granted to writing because it is verifiable.
  • “The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression...truth is a kind of cultural prejudice.”
  • “A major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”
  • Changes in the media environment are first gradual and accretive. At some point, a critical mass is achieved: “A river that has slowly been polluted suddenly becomes toxic.”
  • Not all media offer an equitable trade-off between benefits and costs (and both should be considered, though often one part of the equation is ignored). Some media carry greater costs than benefits and vice-versa.

Chapter 3: Typographic America

  • Colonial America was a typographic culture: Literacy rates were high, distribution of books, pamphlets and newspapers flourished, the general population engaged in active reading.
  • “Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people.”
  • Alexis de Tocqueville noted the democratizing influence of print publications in his book Democracy in America (1835): “The invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes...”

Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind

  • Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s presented as the exemplar of 19th century political discourse and thinking (both by participants and audience, the latter which was broadly representative of the population).

  • Lincoln-Douglas debates exhibited characteristics of the typographic mind:

    • Argument and counterarguments.
    • Claims and counterclaims.
    • Criticism of relevant texts.
    • Scrutiny of the opponent’s assertions.
    • Appeal to understanding rather than the passions.
  • Questions to ask when considering a medium:

    • What are the implications for public discourse?
    • What is the character of its content?
    • What does it demand of the public?
    • What uses of the mind does it favor?
  • “A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know its import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect.”

  • “If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell.”

  • Reading is an isolated, solitary experience. The individual must confront and process the ideas on the page using their own mind and their own biases, experiences and filters.

  • “In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas.” Author bases this assertion on the fact that serious reading requires some degree of mental rigor and critical thinking (ability to follow a line of thought, draw conclusions, make comparisons, detect inconsistencies, etc.).

  • Advertising of the late 1890s began to erode the primacy of rational written communication.

    • Advertising started to appeal to the passions rather than reason (e.g. the rise of taglines, jingles, pithy phrases and unsubstantiated assertions).
    • The increased use of images (illustrations and photos) reduced the primacy of written ideas in these ads.
  • Recreational or leisure reading is a relatively new concept. “The modern idea of testing a reader’s comprehension, as distinct from something else a reader may be doing, would have seemed an absurdity in 1790 or 1830 or 1860.”

  • Age of Exposition vs. Age of Reason:

    • Age of Exposition: The primacy of the typographic mind of the 1700s and 1800s.
    • Age of Show Business: A period starting at the end of the 1800s that runs into the 1900s and the present in which rational discourse is replaced by passion and emotion.

Chapter 5: The Peek-a-Boo World

  • Two technologies change public discourse in the 1800s:

    1. The electric telegraph
    2. Photography
  • “Transportation and communication could be disengaged from each was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.”

    • Before 1840, information can only move as fast as humans, horses or trains could move it.
    • After 1840, as the communications network for telegraphs was built out, communication became high speed.
  • Henry David Thoreau (philosopher): “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate...”

  • The telegraph’s “three-pronged” attack on typographical discourse:

    • Irrelevance: Much of the content is pointless or trivial.
    • Impotence: Pointless content meant there was little the recipient could do with the information other than be amused or entertained by it.
    • Incoherence: With so much information to pump through the system, information became atomized and disconnected.
  • “Telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest and curiosity.”

  • Information became a commodity: something that could be bought and sold.

  • “Penny newspapers” emerged in the 1830s: These publications eschewed the news as reasoned observation and were precursors to tabloid journalism that reveled in the sensational, salacious and trivial in order to sell.

  • Local, evergreen content began to lose out to a national press focused on ephemeral, timely and ultimately disposable content.

  • “The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded.”

  • The irony of abundance: the more you have, the less of it you need.

  • “Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.”

  • “The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it.”

    • A book, by contrast, is an attempt to make a thought permanent and to build upon the past and future conversation on a given topic.
    • “The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message.” [me: sounds like social media]
  • “Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them.”

  • Photographic language of the particular and concrete representation. The photograph presents the world as object (whereas language presents the world as idea).

  • “The photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable.”

  • Author sees the photograph as complement to telegraphic information: the photograph provides concrete context to the news—a perceptual connection that the news from distant lands about strangers otherwise lacked.

  • We developed new forms of entertainment in order recontextualize our trivial knowledge and put it to use:

    • Example: Crossword puzzles (which arose in this period).
    • Example: Cocktail parties.
  • Daniel Boorstin’s (historian) concept of the “pseudo-event”: an event staged so that it could be reported.

  • Subsequent electronic media built upon the foundation of the telegraph and photograph; often amplifying the biases of these initial media.

  • Author argues that entertainment is fine in and of itself. The problem arises when an entertainment medium becomes the basis for epistemology and vehicle for all facets of culture.

    • For instance, television is pervasive. All subjects of public interest—politics, news, education, religion, science, sports—are disseminated to the general public through television.
    • Television influences other behaviors: what products to purchase, what movies or books to consume, how to behave, standards of beauty, etc.
  • “Does television shape culture or merely reflect it?”

  • At some point, a medium is taken for granted as a natural part of the cultural experience. “The loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been changed.”

Part II

Chapter 6: The Age of Show Business

  • Technology vs. medium:

    • Technology is the physical apparatus.
    • A medium is the way the apparatus is used.
    • “A merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.”
  • Every technology has an inherent bias. Every technology as a disposition to be used in a certain way.

  • “Television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.”

  • American television is singular in its focus as an entertainment medium. Specifically: “It has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.”

  • “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining...”

  • “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”

  • One metaphor of television is that all the world is a stage.

  • Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates vs. televised Presidential debates:

    • Modern debates are short format. A couple of minutes to “discuss” deep issues.
    • Modern format lacks complexity, logic, documentation.
    • Modern format is about presenting an image and generating an impression.

Chapter 7: “Now…This”

  • The phrase “now...this” as a metaphor for the disjointed, non sequitor procession of ideas (phrase is commonly used in TV and radio to segue from one topic to a subsequent unrelated topic).
  • “The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously.”
  • The effect is comical (using the example of news): The consumer is treated to a short 60-second segment that is intended to be taken seriously. Segments a presented in rapid succession with no time for serious contemplation or meaningful context.

    • News programs begin and end with music: Why? (It’s a convention of scene-setting and entertainment).
    • Serious topics are regularly interrupted by commercial breaks that are banal in tone and content (which is received as completely normal by the consumer). What kind of respect for the topic does this demonstrate?
  • Robert MacNeil (news anchor): “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”
  • Despite the quantity of news consumption in America, we are among the least informed people in the Western world. Reason: we are being entertained not enlightened.
  • Television promotes disinformation. Disinformation is misleading information: misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented and superficial. “Information that creates the illusion of knowing something...”
  • Case of USA Today, a national newspaper founded in the 1980s that mimics many of the traits of televised content: short stories, heavy use of images and visuals, superficial content and distracting layout.

Chapter 8: Shuffle off to Bethlehem

  • This chapter considers televised religious programming vs. how it is shaped by its medium.
  • Televangelists fail to account for the impact of the medium. Example: Pat Robertson (preacher): “To say that the church shouldn’t be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change..”
  • Ideas cannot be freely moved from one form of discourse to another. The meaning and values of the ideas are changed and reshaped by the new medium.
  • Change the mode of delivery changes the message.
  • Authentic religious experiences are not possible through the medium of television:

    • The space in which television is consumed is not a dedicated sacred space.
    • We consume television in common spaces: bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens which are deeply tied to other activities and contexts.
    • We consume many types of television astride the same medium. For example, consumers watch the 700 Club alongside soap operas, Game of Thrones and The Bachelor.
    • Television has strong ties to the profane, the secular and the commercial.
    • The same business dynamics that drive other forms of programming drive televised religious programming.
  • Leader of the National Religious Broadcasters Association: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”
  • “What is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities...Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

Chapter 9: Reach out and Elect Someone

  • This chapter considers politics and how it has become show business/entertainment in the age of electronic media.
  • “In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial.”
  • The TV commercial is a medium we spend little time thinking about but, over a lifetime, is one of the most persistent and pervasive types of content our minds have been exposed to.
  • Whether we think about it or not: the television commercial is a profound influence on American thought and behavior.
  • TV commercials are pernicious as conveyors as information because they eschew empiricism, reason and logic.
  • “It was not until the 1950’s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions.”
  • The TV commercial is less about the character of the product and more about the character of the consumers of a product. This represents a shift from product research to market research (or by some definitions they are one and the same today).
  • Modern day citizens blindly accept the validity of the TV commercial as a vehicle for political truth.
  • Problems with the TV commercial:

    • The brevity of the form constrains the depth of information presented.
    • The commercial appeals to the emotions of the viewer.
    • The commercial suggests that problems can viewed on simple, black-and-white terms and carry equally simple solutions.
    • “Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones...drama is to be preferred over exposition...being sold solution is better than being confronted with questions about problems.”
  • In the Television Age the politician becomes a celebrity just like other figures that attain popularity through the medium (like actors, athletes, etc.).
  • “Television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by ‘better’ such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems...”
  • “...on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.
  • Like a TV commercial, a politician provides “a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves...whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.”
  • “The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America.”
  • George Gerbner (academic): “Television is for most people the most attractive thing going any time of the day or night. We live in a world in which the vast majority will not turn off.”
  • Television not ban books, it displaces them.
  • In this environment, censorship is not necessary given the appeal of distracting amusements: “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse.”

Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity

  • This chapter considers how education has been co-opted and subsequently shaped by television.

  • Sesame Street doesn’t encourage kids to love school, it encourages them to love television.

    • Traditional schooling involves social interaction.
    • Traditional schooling involves the back and forth of questions and answers between student and teacher.
    • Traditional schooling involves the development of language.
    • Traditional schooling requires adherence to traditional notions of decorum.
  • John Dewey (educator): “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation and enduring attitudes...may be and often is more important...”

  • Author treats television as a kind of curriculum: “A curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth.”

  • Television’s educational philosophy: education and entertainment are inextricably linked.

  • Three aspects of Televisions educational philosophy:

    1. Thou shalt have no prerequisites: Each program is a complete package in itself. Learning is not hierarchical (to do so would constrain the potential audience for the programming).
    2. Thou shalt induce no perplexity. Information presented must be immediately accessible; consumption by the learner more important than growth or progress of the learner.
    3. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations and reasoned discourse are an anathema to television. Story-telling is the optimal teaching paradigm (it’s also easier to visualize and dramatize).
  • “The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity, and exposition is entertainment.”

Chapter 11: The Huxleyan Warning

  • Orwellian vs. Huxleyan vision of the future:

    • Orwellian: Culture becomes a prison.
    • Huxleyan: Culture becomes a burlesque.
  • “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 suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.”

  • “Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions...”

  • The Orwellian future is easier to recognize and oppose. “Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

  • “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”

  • “No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are...this is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell.”

  • Some questions to ask to attain “media consciousness”:

    • What is information?
    • What are its various forms?
    • How does a form influence conceptions of facts, wisdom and intelligence?
    • What conceptions does a form neglect or mock? (form being a medium)
    • What are the psychological effects of a form?
    • What is the relationship between information and reason?
    • What kind of information best fosters thinking?
    • What are the inherent biases of a given form?

Get weekly email updates and additional content: Sign up for the free Mental Pivot Newsletter.