Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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by Neil Postman

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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…  See more details below


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From the author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity comes a sustained, withering and thought-provoking attack on television and what it is doing to us. Postman's theme is the decline of the printed word and the ascendancy of the ``tube'' with its tendency to present everythingmurder, mayhem, politics, weatheras entertainment. The ultimate effect, as Postman sees it, is the shrivelling of public discourse as TV degrades our conception of what constitutes news, political debate, art, even religious thought. Early chapters trace America's one-time love affair with the printed word, from colonial pamphlets to the publication of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. There's a biting analysis of TV commercials as a form of ``instant therapy'' based on the assumption that human problems are easily solvable. Postman goes further than other critics in demonstrating that television represents a hostile attack on literate culture. October 30

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Table of Contents


Title Page

Copyright Page




Part I.

Chapter 1. - The Medium Is the Metaphor

Chapter 2. - Media as Epistemology

Chapter 3. - Typographic America

Chapter 4. - The Typographic Mind

Chapter 5. - The Peek-a-Boo World


Part II.

Chapter 6. - The Age of Show Business

Chapter 7. - “Now ... This”

Chapter 8. - Shuffle Off to Bethlehem

Chapter 9. - Reach Out and Elect Someone

Chapter 10. - Teaching as an Amusing Activity

Chapter 11. - The Huxleyan Warning





Acclaim for Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

“As a fervent evangelist of the age of Hollywood, I publicly opposed Neil Postman’s dark picture of our media-saturated future. But time has proved Postman right. He accurately foresaw that the young would inherit a frantically all-consuming media culture of glitz, gossip, and greed.”

—Camille Paglia


“A brillant, powerful and important book. This is an indictment that Postman has laid down and, so far as I can see, an irrefutable one.”

—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World


“He starts where Marshall McLuhan left off, constructing his arguments with the resources of a scholar and the wit of a raconteur.”

The Christian Science Monitor


“This comes along at exactly the right moment.... We must confront the challenge of his prophetic vision.”

—Jonathan Kozol


For the last third of the twentieth century, Neil Postman was one of America’s foremost social critics and education and communications theorists, and his ideas and accessibility won him an international following. An influential and revered teacher, he was professor for more than forty years at New York University, where he founded the renowned Media Ecology program. Blessed with an unusually far-reaching mind, he authored more than twenty books, producing major works on education (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The End of Education), childhood (The Disappearance of Childhood), language (Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk), news (How to Watch TV News, with Steve Powers) and technology’s impact on culture (Technopoly). Amusing Ourselves to Death remains his most reverberating and widely read book, translated into more than a dozen languages. He was educated at the State University of New York at Fredonia and Columbia University. He died in October 2003, at the age of seventy-two.


Andrew Postman, Neil’s son, is the author of five books, including the novel Now I Know Everything. For several years he was a monthly columnist for Glamour and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New York Magazine, among numerous publications.

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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin Inc. 1985
Published in Penguin Books 1986
This edition with an introduction by Andrew Postman published 2006



Copyright © Neil Postman, 1985

Introduction copyright © Andrew Postman, 2005
All rights reserved


Grateful acknowledgment is made to The New York Times Company for permission to reprint from “Combining TV, Books, Computers” by Edward Fiske, which appeared in the August 7, 1984 issue of The New York Times. Copyright © 1984 by The New York Times Company.


A section of this book was supported by a commission from the Annenberg Scholars Program, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California. Specifically, portions of chapters six and seven formed part of a paper delivered at the Scholars Conference, “Creating Meaning: Literacies of our Time,” February 1984.


eISBN : 978-1-101-04262-5




The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition

Now this?

A book of social commentary published twenty years ago? You’re not busy enough writing e-mails, returning calls, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), checking out Web sites, sending text messages, IM’ing, Tivoing, watching what you’ve Tivoed, browsing through magazines and newspapers, reading new books—now you’ve got to stop and read a book that first appeared in the last century, not to mention the last millennium? Come on. Like your outlook on today could seriously be rocked by this plain-spoken provocation about The World of 1985, a world yet to be infiltrated by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat-screens, HDTV, and iPods? Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated perils of television, could feel timely today, the Age of Computers? Is it really plausible that this book about how TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment; how the image is undermining other forms of communication, particularly the written word; and how our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by “information glut” until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused.... Can such a book possibly have relevance to you and The World of 2006 and beyond?

I think you’ve answered your own question.

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Amusing Ourselves to Death 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Molly2 More than 1 year ago
When I was in the U.S. Army in the 1960's, I taught English to a dozen high school girls from Ewah High School, in Seoul, Korea. My tutoring was quite basic. One night I said, " I live in Knoxville, Tennessee ". One little Korean teen said shyly, " Ah, Knoxville, Tennessee: Headquarters of Tennessee Valley Authority ". I was bowled over with the students' knowledge of the geography of the United States. Looking back, I realize that this little episode is perhaps a metaphor for the sorry state of American education. We Americans are almost completely ignorant about the world around us, even of our own country. And our ignorance of our own, illustrious American history, is almost as deplorable. We have become a nation of people who don't seem to care what is going on in the world. And that, eventually, is going to do us in. Neil Postman illustrates our desire for mindless television viewing by giving numerous examples of the fluff and piffle that masquerades as "news". Our Founding Fathers warned the American people that being a citizen requires full participation in the affairs of our nation, and subscribed to an informed citizenship. Thomas Jefferson said, " Dissent is the highest form of patriotism ". He would weep if he saw the cocksure ignorance of most Americans. "What Americans don't know will kill them", said Fred Friendly. one of television's major figures, many years ago. When we have a televison show that is called, " Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?", you know you are in deep trouble. How many Americans see the sad irony of this abomination? Postman was a prophet, and I am afraid he is absolutely correct that we are Amusing Ourselves To Death.
Daniel-Oswald More than 1 year ago
Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, is a book about social content. The message of the book is that our culture has moved past being a print based culture and is now a culture that is revolved around television. The start of our cultural shift can be traced back to the nineteenth century, by means of when the telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse. This was one of the most important developments in communication at that time because for the first time in the history of man communication could move faster than man. With this came a change in media, because after the telegraph news could travel from one end of the country to another instantaneously. In the end of part one of the book, Postman states that this made a "language of headlines" and that from these spawned the phrase "the news of the day". These are still used today on major television news channels where they run the headlines at the bottom of the screen separating them by the company's name. "The news of the day" is the top story of the network is covering in its broadcast. From this kind of broadcasting, we get fragments of the news; this is what Postman calls "Now. This", which Postman says also is signified by a broadcaster saying that he is done covering one story and is about to move onto the next. The main focus of the book is on television, what television does for and to our culture. "Television is our cultures principal mode of knowing about itself," Postman says in the first chapter of the second part of the book. What this means is that the shows we watch become a part of us, it becomes the main place where we get information about our community, our country, and I'd make the argument that it is where we go to learn about other cultures too. This is true for not only major news channels which I mentioned earlier but for different shows and sitcoms. The Travel Channel, for instance, has many of these kinds of shows that one watches if they would like to learn about the different cultures, shows like Bizarre Foods and No Reservations, where one can not only learn about the culture and foods of somewhere where they will probably never end up going but they are also entertaining to watch. The entertaining factor of television is how Postman puts it in the second part of the book as "supra-ideology of all discourse on television." This meaning that even if what you're watching is suppose to be educational it is also entertaining. I strongly agree with this Postman statement because there is no way to turn on the television and not be attempted by the networks to be entertained. Postman also mentions that we have news as entertainment, but now we have entertainment as news in the show Entertainment Tonight. It was seen that there was a need for us as a culture to not only be entertained by television but to have a program that is based on what those who entertain us are doing when they are not entertaining. In the last chapter, Postman said that television turns everything on it into entertainment packages. In our society today we are so addicted to being entertained, television is an obvious medium that feeds that addiction. We can say that we are learning something from watching a program, like say one that is about Italy, but really we are being entertained by the music, the ruins of an ancient age, the sight of the sun going down on the Mediterranean Sea, and and the tidbits of information that the show is giving us will soon be forgotten.
DadOfSix More than 1 year ago
Postman's insights into our culture and ways of thinking and communicating are tremendous. This isn't just another "TV is terrible because it's all garbage" tirade. This is an incisive analysis of human epistemology, and how the video culture is changing how - and how well - we think. Having raised six children with no television in the house, I can verify empirically that his observations are correct.
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mushrie More than 1 year ago
Boldly asserting that "technology is ideology", Postman analyzes a steady cultural shift in America as a result of dependency on entertainment for public discourse. Remarkably, it originally circulated in 1985 but in retrospect, its content appears to have prophesied the reliance on entertainment and the domination of television over printed media. It is an incredible book that details a complex argument that rejects the application of entertainment as a medium in which human interaction is submissive to. Postman's tone was never crude; rather, he gracefully acknowledged the benefits of entertainment while remaining steadfast to his dismissal of television as an arbitrator of knowledge. Postman recognizes the significance of a shift in communications. The development of language came to define human beings and its immortalization in written text thanks to the printing press created a new age of dynamic interaction and communication. So, too, will the development of television have an irreversible effect on contemporary culture. One really interesting point Postman makes is the legitimacy of oral and written language. An example he used was a student's notification of a passing grade; one would rather see the acknowledgement written on paper than hear an instructor announce it. This ultimately raises the question as to whether or not moving pictures, television, will later be favored over written text. Making note of the form, rather than the content of the book, Postman's organization of ideas reveals a steady, consistent, and practical stream of analysis starting with the discussion of a pre-television America and ending with an ominous warning. I really enjoyed this book because of its relevance to a 21st century America. If you watched The Network directed by Sidney Lumet, a quick comparison suggests a similar message towards television. This book is recommended for those in high school and beyond because although it is not particularly long, Postman's ideas and references become rather complex and thick which would require considerable patience. Overall, it is a highly suggested book.
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MikeHBrandes More than 1 year ago
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), is a book by Neil Postman in which he argues that media of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them. Postman posits that television is the primary means of communication for our culture and it has the property of converting a culture's conversations with itself into entertainment, so much so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared. Since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues and indeed since serious issues have been treated as entertainment for so many decades now, the public is no longer aware of these issues in their original sense, but only as entertainment. Postman argues that communication media inherently shape the conversations that can be carried out. To take an extreme example, it is not possible to conduct a discussion of philosophy using smoke signals; the conversation is too complex and long to be conducted over a medium of such low bandwidth. Postman in particular describes two forms of mass media, print and television, and the ways they influence the content carried across them. Television as a medium is inherently assertionless; a video of an event makes no assertions whatsoever. It merely displays something that occurred. For example, an advertisement for McDonald's often says nothing about the burgers, their nutritional value, their cost or position in the market compared to the competition; instead, it shows happy, smiling children eating McDonald's burgers, followed by a happy clown. A viewer can like or dislike a McDonald's advertisement, but he or she cannot accept or refute it, because there is nothing to accept or refute. Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from the vision offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss and voluntarily sacrifice their rights. Postman sees television's entertainment value as a "soma" for the contemporary world, and he sees contemporary mankind surrendering its rights in exchange for entertainment. (Note that there is no contradiction between an intentional "Orwellian" conspiracy using "Huxleyan" means, which is an argument advanced in the later book The Unreality Industry: the deliberate manufacturing of falsehood and what it is doing to our lives by Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis [New York: Carol Pub. Group, 1989]. Postman evidently did not disagree, since he provided a blurb for this book.) The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content," that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Rational argument, an integral component of print typography, cannot be conveyed through the medium of television because "its form excludes the content." Because of this shortcoming, politics and religion get diluted, and "news of the day" is turned into a commodity. The presentation most often de-emphasizes quality; all data becomes burdened to the far-reaching need for entertainment. I give this book two thumbs up for anyone interested in communication theory and philosophy.
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UnemployedAMemoir More than 1 year ago
That this book was written at the dawn of the age of 24-hour news (CNN 1 June 1980, we've had them for 29 years) this book is the mental litmus test I use to sift through the minutia of news and views. The Internet (a DARPA project when Neil Postman wrote his treatise) has changed the game: President Obama was probably the first candidate to completely MASTER all forms of this new entertainment, maximizing all social networks: You Tube, Twitter, Face Book, My Space, etc., and sent out a consistent message as well as used all forms of media to raise record campaign contributions. This is how it will be run: elections from now on. You have to be photogenic, you have to dominate all forms of media and you HAVE to be entertaining. I voted for Obama for his talent as a politician and a reprisal for eight years that lacked intellectual depth, but I think it speaks to an almost primitive leaning in ourselves: we tend to vote for the cutest (Sarah Palin), the war heroes (Kerry and McCain... maybe not!), the crusader for the poor (Edwards, before his fall), in other words: one has to have a compelling story as well as qualifications to run and be successful for any political office (unless you're in Iran). It also helps before your campaigns - Obama, Clinton, W, McCain - to have written a book and easily made the NYT best seller's list. I believe Palin's move to not run for reelection in Alaska is following this formula along with her book deal. We'll see in 2012 how successful she is. SOUNDING good at the mike also helps! Lincoln, I'm told, probably would not have made it today: yet another form of entertainment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago