Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death

I’ve been hearing for years that I should read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, so I figured that now would be a good time to do that. Despite the fact that it’s written to a media culture that is quite a bit different than our own (80’s TV culture versus our social media culture), it still has a lot of value. Actually, I would recommend it for everyone, because even though the mediums are different, the diseases are the same. Rather, they are more advanced because the newer mediums take the bad qualities of TV and add a few of their own. So what’s the actual value? It’s useful as a tool to discuss and critique the role and practices of news and social media today. It will help give you good vocabulary and perspectives through with to attack the subject. One of the things you need to help you fight the toxic affects of media in your life (and the lives of your friends and loved ones) is the tools to identify its harmful aspects. This book can help you with that.

It’s not a difficult book to read, so you likely won’t need the following. But since I took the time to write up a prose outline, here it is.

An Outline

(Ch 1: The Medium is the Metaphor) The medium through which we converse has the strongest possible influence on what we can conveniently express. Form limits and shapes what content can work. For example, you can’t do philosophy over smoke signals. Nor can daily news really exist until the telegraph (i.e. some way of getting distant info immediately). This book is a lament about the change from a typography-based culture to a TV-based culture. These two media are vastly different and cannot accommodate the same ideas.

(Ch 2: Media as Epistemology) Discourse under the TV is different than under the printing press. It’s not that all of TV is bad. It’s actually when the TV tries to be serious, when it tries to take the role of print, that it is most dangerous. Postman then works through several examples of how the medium used affects how you think and determine what is true. One of those examples is the use of proverbial wisdom in making judgements. In some contexts and cultures, proverbial wisdom can be impactful and useful for making decisions. But in the case of the modern print-based courtroom, that will not be acceptable. He is not saying that either are wrong or right all the time. The point: as the structure and medium of how you pass on information changes, what gets defined as intelligent changes with it. The printing press brought about radical changes to how we think. Some of those changes were harmful, but on the whole we are better off. In contrast, public discourse is much worse through the medium of TV.

(Ch 3: Typographic America) Chapter three and the following two build a narrative of the changes in America. Chapter three starts with a conversation between Ben Franklin and a Dunker (a religious group). That group avoided putting their ideas in print because they feared that it would entrap their ideas and keep them from thinking. But this was unusual for early America. Generally speaking it was print and literacy-focused. Even discourse was often print-ish, print-out-loud, or printed orality. Print dominated both because of its qualities and because it had a natural monopoly.

(Ch 4: The Typographic Mind) Continuing the narrative, it opens with a Douglas/Lincoln debate, focusing on how the audience could handle long discussions, could understand complex sentences when spoken, and were informed. This ability comes from the fact that it was an era of print, and print required actual content (true or not), and demanded much from the reader. The age of reason and print culture are related. It was an age of intellectual prowess in politics and religion. Even advertising at the time was more about content, because it was all prose.

(Ch 5: A Peek-a-Boo World) Major changes start with the invention of the telegraph. Suddenly, we are beginning to be flooded with an incoherent and disconnected flow of information that was irrelevant to almost everyone that heard it and was about things that almost no one could do anything about. Irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. Later, photography becomes the handmaid to this kind of information because it gives the trivia of that information a feeling of context and connection. TV gives imagery and trivial knowledge its perfect expression. The culture and epistemology created by the medium of TV has been around long enough for it to become background noise. The goal of the following chapters is to make it visible again.

(Ch 6: The Age of Show Business) TV is not an extension of type and creates a different social and intellectual environment. Every technology has a bias. Printing’s bias is text. TV’s bias is entertainment. A news show is built for entertainment, not for reflection, dialogue, or catharsis. TV is not suited for revealing the act of thinking. There are notable exceptions on TV to this, but they were fighting against the norm of what TV as a medium is actually good at, so could never be the dominant type of content. TV’s entertainment focus then spreads out and affects other aspects of how we conduct ourselves.

(Ch 7: Now…This) Telegraphy and photography introduced the discontinuous mode of discourse, but TV matured it. Credibility is about showmanship and looks, with a cast of the right appearance and personality. As for the feel, you have music to entertain and ease through transitions, stories are short (avg 45 seconds), and pictures beat words. That most of the news is presented in a disengaged fashion, and that it’s frequently interrupted by commercials, takes away the seriousness and weight. The rapid juxtapositions destroy continuity. TV is driven by a theory of anti-communication. Americans, entertained but not informed, have only the illusion of knowledge. We don’t have opinions. We have emotions. We are even losing the idea of what it means to be informed. The press is primarily entertainment-driven, not truth-driven. Because of the incoherent approach, people can’t see context. Knowledge is now trivial pursuit.

(Ch 8: Shuffle off to Bethlehem) After watching some religious TV shows (Reverend Terry, Pat Robertson/700 Club, Jimmy Swaggert), a few conclusions can be drawn. First, anger and hate usually don’t play well on TV, so they were pretty tame. Second, it’s entertainment. Third, it weakens the nature of religious experience. Not all forms of discourse can be translated into other media and remain the same thing, e.g. poetry, condolences (cards are not the same as physical presence), and education. Proper religious experience requires religious space, and TV is naturally profane. Electric church however goes toe-to-toe with TV by having high production value, pretty people, good marketing, and by focusing on wants instead of needs. But ritual, aesthetics, and enchantment have a real place in religion. Can religion survive the conversion to entertainment? “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (141).

(Ch 9: Reach out and Elect Someone) Politics are show business. The commercialization of politics has devastated discourse. Commercials are the greatest attack on capitalism since Das Kapital, because capitalism assumes rational self-interest. Commercialism attacks this by focusing consumer manipulation away from propositions and claims, “away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable” (149). Similarly, politics became about feelings, not propositions. The philosophy of the commercial: brevity, drama over exposition, and solutions over questions. This is the philosophy of electoral politics. This also naturally leads to the rise of politician as celebrity, and to choosing people over parties and policies. But the celebrity politician does not offer an image of himself, but rather an image of the one watching him, and empties politics of any authentic substance. All great TV commercials are about helping people create images for themselves. History plays no role in image politic. TV is making us unfit to remember, making us indifferent to history, and providing us no narrative. You might think that our problem would be book banning and the control of information by the government. For us, the problem is that our information is controlled not by the federal state but by the corporate state, and we are not setup to defend against that.

(Ch 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity) Everyone loves Sesame Street, but it leaves out much: the social aspect of school, teacher interaction, emphasis of image over language, and lack of practice of public decorum. This type of learning is hostile to book and classroom learning. As John Dewey would argue, there is collateral learning that needs to take place. You need to learn how to learn, and TV learning is hostile to that. In TV learning, education and entertainment are inseparable. Commandments: thou shalt have no prerequisites, thou shalt introduce no complexity, thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt. This orientation reduces the potency of the classroom and refashions teaching and learning into something that must be fun. The rest of the chapter focuses on an educational program called “The Voyage of the Mimi”, full of short videos, highly-illustrated books, and computer games. The problem is that there is no solid proof it works better as a process. Also, this could only work with some types of content. The wrong question is “What is TV good for in education?” The right question is “What is education good for?”

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