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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What happens when media and politics become forms of entertainment? As our world begins to look more and more like Orwell's 1984, Neil's Postman's essential guide to the modern media is more relevant than ever.

"It's unlikely that Trump has ever read Amusing Ourselves to Death, but his ascent would not have surprised Postman.” -CNN

Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell phones to DVDs—it has taken on even greater significance. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of  entertainment. It is also a blueprint for regaining control of our media, so that they can serve our highest goals.

“A brilliant, 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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143036531
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/27/2005
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 23,931
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Neil Postman (1931–2003) was chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University and founder of its Media Ecology program. He wrote more than twenty books.

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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.

Table of Contents

Part I
1. The Medium Is the Metaphor
2. Media as Epistemology
3. Typographic America
4. The Typographic Mind
5. The Peek-a-Boo World
Part II
6. The Age of Show Business
7. "Now...This"
8. Shuffle Off to Bethlehem
9. Reach Out and Elect Someone
10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity
11. The Huxleyan Warning

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Amusing Ourselves to Death 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you find yourself looking at the state of our public discourse and wondering how we got here, you must read this book. Postman died in 2003, but the election of Trump is a natural consequence from the trends he described in this book from the 1980s. You might not like his message, but it will get you to step back and look at our world in a new way.
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.
astutz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a phenomenal treatise on society's inundation with mass media, especially television, and it's increasing unawareness of the damaging affects of media on public discourse.
tkadlec on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An important and valuable read, Postman's book was published in 1985, before the explosion of the internet. It's ideas, however, are still very relevant today.Postman argues, very articulately, that television has seriously altered our culture and, in fact, poses a serious threat to it. One might think he'd play the role of curmudgeon and point to all the "garbage" on television, but instead, he argues that tv is most dangerous "when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations". Informative, thought-provoking, and yes, even entertaining, this is definitely a recommended read.
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Is there a relationship between the decline in education in the United States today and the ever present media entertainment. Cell phones and texting are only making this worse.
kjforester on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Postman describes television as an ideology that has negatively altered the way Americans communicate by shifting our culture from a literate, thoughtful and well-read people to one that passively absorbs information from non-contextual imagery and sound bites. He likens television to the devastating "soma" in Huxley's Brave New World and much closer to reality than Orwell's dark predictions. Fascinating read. You will never look at television news the same way.
adulau on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Starting by reading the introduction, I thought that will be again one of those prophetic books about media and television flying over the top and forgetting about the inner problem of visual media usage. Not at all, the book is incredible and really dig into the issue of our society moving "away" from typography for going into visual and short-term visual events. The book is well structured and covering very well the aspects of short-term visual communication. The text written in 1985 is still very valuable and even provides an insightful perspective to our Today's society of entertainment (as somehow defined by Aldous Huxley or by Guy Debord). An interesting reading opening the doors to interesting discussions about media and our society.
alissamarie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sometimes insightful, sometimes frustrating. Nobody gets it all right, but Postman does seem to have a rather idyllic view of early American life, into which slavery never seems to factor. Interesting.But, as someone who is not a fan of televised news, I nodded a bit in the politics chapter.
francesanngray on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant and visionary. Everyone should read this.
ZacAbeel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If Guns Germs and Steel explains where we as humans have been and how we got here, then Amusing Ourselves to Death makes a great argument as to where we as humans are going. Author Neil Postman begins by comparing George Orwell's 1984 and Alex Huxley's Brave New World. Both books made bold predictions about life in the future. In Postman's opinion, Orwell was wrong when he foretold the end of human liberties coming by way of total and brutal government control. Instead, Postman sees the end (or apathy) of humanity coming by way of entertainment and people being happy until the end. To support his opinion, Postman uses his book to point out how TV has significantly changed how we as a society think, debate, and act. In his conclusion, The author is of the opinion that Huxley got it right. This is a book that changed the way I watch TV, listen to the media, view politics/politicians, understand education in America, think about my own intelligence, and think about the state/fate of the world. It is really thought provoking and very relevant.
morningsidefamily on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is sort of minor classic about how visual media (particularly TV) inherently differ from literary media. Worth the read for the explanation of how even educational TV offers much less content and critical analysis than a book on the same subject, and for the explanation of commercials as parables.
kristianbrigman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great book. This is the best of his books IMHO (I have read this one, Technopoly, and Building a Bridge to the 18th century...) It is in some ways a polemic against television, but it has good examples of what he feels are tv's failings, and always keeps a balanced and objective tone. Good for thinking about not necessarily whether you should own a TV or not (it's not that polemic), but thinking about TV affects the way you live you life, and what TV is good for (or not good for).
bsanner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An insightful critique of TV culture (e.g. edu-tainment, media, sound bites, and group think) and its effect on American culture.
edwin.gleaves on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A book that I have used in teaching in several areas--anything relating to the future of books and reading in an age of mass media. Consider it McLuhan brought up to the eighties.
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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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