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

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Well, this is all a bit depressing.

I mean, we’re all fairly acutely aware of the way the internet makes us all a little stupider, right? There was a lot of hoo-ha about Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stoopid? but in this brief book, Postman makes the same claims about television, something which by now appears benign in comparison to the dizzying chasm of timesink that defines most of our modern lives.

And he did it in 1985.

And then Roger Waters wrote an album about it.

I know, right?


Anyway, Postman’s work, obviously prescient enough that it’s receiving reissues, is compelling and terrifying, largely because it’s easy to extrapolate from the work that the internet is basically the bigger, meaner version of television. So while the internet wasn’t A Thing at the time of writing, there’s similarities in the behaviour of the medium (and our reaction to it) that are close enough to those of TV described in the text to cause a real concern.

Simply put, the book suggests a simple theory. We’re all prepared for an Orwellian future, right? Fascism and jails and state control, the theft of human rights? Right. Except Postman suggests that reality is much closer to a Huxley reality, that of Brave New World, where we use entertainment as medication. Control occurs in both, but the individual is the tool of oppression in the latter.

There’s plenty of dated references which – while pleasing to me – may confuse readers who aren’t quite so au courant with the mid-1980s, but it seems that while the names change, the roles remain the same. (At one point, much is made of then-President Reagan’s relationship with the truth, and how more is conveyed about the spirit of his words than what they actually mean: I suspect there’ll be a lot more of this sort of observation in the coming years.)

Much of what’s written feels like common sense, though the point of common sense is, I guess, that it’s shocking to realise how true it may be. Postman discusses the difference between the times of the printed word – and attendant rational argument – and the time of television news, in which facts are presented as entertainment, uncritically, and washed down with a throw to a feel-good end story. A lot of the rest of the book reads like stuff taken from Marshall McLuhan (which the author freely admits) and it’s the case that the reader will think “yeah, I know that” about some of the theses within… but they still shock. And the stakes are high:

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

Interestingly, Postman doesn’t call for the abolition of television: merely the removal of the attempt it makes to be “serious”. Be shitty and proud, producers, because that’s what you’re best at! Or, consumers – make an effort to be aware of what you’re looking at. It’s not your friend.

There’s criticism around that Postman’s book is less relevant because we’re now decades on and things are still all right, aren’t they? I dunno, but from my reading of political education and engagement in these chapters, it seems the Puritans had more interest in their world than we do, where a digital thumbs-up and a season pass are all we need to get by. You should probably read this, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking for an online distraction afterwards.

You’ll need something to cheer you up.

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