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Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
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Thirty-five years ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warned that television was reshaping our culture and trivializing public life—including news, politics, religion, education, and business—by turning it into entertainment.

His concern was television’s ability to so inundate us with irrelevant information that we’d lose sight of what was important and meaningful—even worse, we wouldn’t care as long as we felt entertained.

Postman’s central message resonates today because television has been joined by a host of even more distracting media. Devices like smartphones and tablets, plus numerous methods of communication, including email, texting, the internet, cable, gaming, and streaming, continue to enlarge the culture of entertainment he saw taking shape.

When this book was published, the year 1984 had just passed and Americans were relieved that the totalitarian scenario depicted by George Orwell in the novel 1984 hadn’t materialized. However, Postman argued that Americans were instead moving toward the different dystopian scenario of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where entertainment technology rather than democracy became the ideology.

Redefining Culture

The rise of television as our dominant medium or means of communication in the second half of the 20th century redefined American culture.

Throughout human history, the form or technology of communication has dictated what ideas we express and how we express them. In replacing the Age of Typography or print, the Age of Television changed the content of our public discourse by redefining every aspect of public life, from politics to religion, as entertainment or show business.

We’re in essence “amusing ourselves to death”—that is, hastening the death of our culture by accommodating ourselves to television’s way of defining things, without thinking about or even noticing what’s happening.

Form Dictates Content

Television is just the latest example of how our forms of communication throughout history have dictated what is communicated and, therefore, shaped our culture.

For example, native Americans communicated with smoke signals, but the form—puffs of smoke—precluded complicated messages like a discussion of philosophy.

The telegraph was another medium whose form or design determined the information it delivered. The telegraph made it possible to move bits of disparate information lacking any context over long distances at incredible speed. Previously inaccessible information about fires, wars, and murders in far-flung places became part of local conversations and culture despite lacking local relevance.

Today, we’ve adapted to receiving news and information in a fragmented form because television and other electronic media are designed to deliver it this way.

Print Culture in Early America

To understand just how much television has changed the way we think and talk, it’s necessary to contrast today’s shallow entertainment culture with the serious, rational print culture that shaped America from the colonists’ arrival in the New World through the 19th century.

In that era, print structured public discourse, influenced its content, and appealed to and required a certain kind of audience—one skilled at reading and logical thinking.

The colonists were avid readers, particularly of the Bible, and they brought many books with them from England and had others imported. The literacy rate for all social classes was high.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, had an immense audience, selling about 400,000 copies. The equivalent in 1985 would be a book selling 24 million copies.

In terms of capturing public attention, Paine’s feat would be comparable to the Super Bowl today.

Attending debates on the issues of the day was an important part of civic and social life. County and state fairs offered lineups of speakers in three-hour slots with equal time for opponents. “Stump” speaking, in which speakers held forth while standing on a tree stump, was also popular in the West.

Speakers used the style of the written word with long, complex sentences, as well as rhetorical devices such as sarcasm, irony, and metaphors, knowing that their audiences would be able to keep up. They could also rely on their listeners’ familiarity with history and current events. Audiences had remarkable attention spans.

You could call this period in America the Age of Exposition, characterized by a way of thinking, learning, and expression. Print culture required and enhanced the characteristics necessary for mature conversation or discourse—for instance, thinking rationally, coherently, and objectively.

But by the end of the 19th century, the Age of Exposition began giving way to the Age of Entertainment.

Decontextualizing Information

Two...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Introduction

Thirty-five years ago, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warned that television was reshaping our culture and trivializing public life—our news, politics, religion, education, and business—by turning everything into entertainment.

His concern was television’s ability to so inundate us with irrelevant information that we’d lose sight of what was important and meaningful—even worse, we wouldn’t care as long as we felt entertained.

Postman’s central message resonates today because television has been joined by a host of even more distracting media. Devices like smartphones and tablets, plus numerous methods of communication, including email, texting, the internet, cable, gaming, and streaming, continue to enlarge the...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Foreword

In 1985, when this book was first published, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was still on and an actor-turned-politician, Ronald Reagan, was president. The Mac computer was a year old and USA Today was three. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings were anchoring nightly newscasts, and the top-rated TV shows were Dallas, Cheers, and Dynasty.

As the year 1984 came and went, Americans were relieved that the totalitarian scenario depicted by George Orwell in the novel 1984 didn’t materialize. However, Postman argued that Americans were instead moving...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Part 1 | Chapter 1: Media are Metaphors for Reality

Throughout human history, the form or technology of communication has dictated what ideas we express and how we express them.

In early America, print culture defined the world as ordered, rational, understandable, and requiring citizen engagement. In contrast, beginning in the late 19th century, the burgeoning image-driven culture later dominated by television presented the world as chaotic, disconnected, distracting, and disempowering. As a result, we became fixated on whatever was most entertaining, rather than most valuable or important.

In replacing the Age of Typography or print, the Age of Television changed the content of our public discourse (what we talk about) by redefining every aspect of public life—politics, news, education, religion, and business—as entertainment or show business.

We’re in essence “amusing ourselves to death”—that is, hastening the death of our culture by accommodating ourselves to television’s way of defining things, without thinking about or even noticing what’s happening.

Our Television-Driven Culture

At various points in American history, different cities have embodied the spirit of the time. In the late 18th century, Boston...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 2: Media Define Truth

As communication in America has shifted from print to television, public discourse has degenerated into nonsense. In the print era, conversation was serious and rational; under the sway of television, it’s become shallow and incoherent.

The problem isn’t that television produces garbage—print has produced its share of nonsense as well. Nonsense can be enjoyable. In fact, the best shows on television are the “junk” shows, according to Postman. But television becomes a problem when it purports to be serious and aspires to conduct a meaningful cultural conversation—for what it defines as serious and presents as truth actually drowns out truth with trivial nonsense.

Throughout history, the form of a culture’s media has influenced that culture’s conception of the truth (its epistemology). Following are several examples of how the type of media influenced what people believed to be true.

Oral Culture

In oral cultures, judges would decide disputes by searching their mental store of proverbs for one that seemed to fit the situation. The medium (the proverb) defined the truth and the parties accepted it as presenting a just solution. Similarly, Jesus drew on...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapters 3-4: Print Culture in Early America

To understand just how much television has changed the way we think and talk, it’s necessary to contrast today’s shallow entertainment culture with the serious, rational print culture that shaped America from the colonists’ arrival in the New World through the 19th century.

In that era, print structured public discourse, influenced its content, and appealed to and required a certain kind of audience—one skilled at reading and thinking.

The colonists were avid readers, particularly of the Bible, but they brought many books with them from England and had others imported.

The literacy rate for all social classes was high. For instance, in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1640-1700, the rate for men was between 89% and 95%. For women between 1681-1697, it was as high as 62%.

Religion (being able to read the Bible) was a driving factor. In addition, immigrants to New England came from more literate parts of the Old World, or were a more literate demographic. Further, most New England towns required a “reading and writing school”; larger ones required a grammar school also. Reading influenced political, religious, and social life.

The Centrality of Reading

Most reading...

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Shortform Exercise: How Much Do You Read?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans were serious readers and thinkers. They read widely and attended public lectures and debates that delved into public issues in depth. Literacy was essential to participating in public life.


How much and what do you read in a typical week? Why do you read?

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 5: Decontextualizing the World

Two technological developments in the mid-19th century changed public discourse and paved the way for the Age of Entertainment. The first was the invention of the telegraph, which removed the constraints on communication of speed and distance; the second was the development of photography, which replaced words with images.

By the mid-19th century, America had expanded to the Pacific. However, the difficulties of communicating over long distances limited national cohesion—the nation was a patchwork of regions with their own interests.

The problem was solved with the invention of the electrical telegraph, which could send messages over long distances in the form of coded pulses of electrical current transmitted through wires. By connecting the country with a communication network, the telegraph created the opportunity for a national conversation. But in the process, it redefined information and changed the meaning of public discourse altogether.

Redefining Information

The telegraph undermined the key components of print-based discourse: relevance, usefulness, and coherence, which are closely related. These effects were exacerbated by newspapers—the penny press of...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Part 2 | Chapter 6: The Entertainment Age

In television’s early stages, some people hoped it could be used to support and extend literacy. However, it was a false hope representing what McLuhan called “rear-view mirror thinking”—viewing a new technology as an extension of the old—for instance, thinking of a car as a fast horse or a lightbulb as a stronger candle.

Television doesn’t extend literacy, but it directly attacks it. Unlike reading, television offers a constantly changing spectacle that provides emotional gratification without demanding literacy or any particular thinking skills to understand it.

It’s entertaining, which, again, isn’t a problem in itself—but television goes further to suggest that we should naturally judge everything by its entertainment value. And television presents all content or subject matter as entertainment. This is antithetical to print culture’s treatment of information as rational...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 7: Television Redefines Truth

At the time this book was written, the phrase, “Now, this …” was commonly used on television newscasts to signal a transition to a lighter story or a commercial. However, on another level, the phrase was an acknowledgement that television’s presentation of the world had no coherence or meaning.

The problem is that when news is presented without seriousness, context, coherence, or rationality—the criteria for judging credibility in print culture—it’s difficult for a TV audience to know what to believe. Here again, television has changed the meaning of both information and credibility.

In the past, information was believed if it reflected reality. In contrast, on television, whether a message is deemed truthful depends on the attractiveness, authority, and authenticity projected by the presenter/performer.

This has serious implications. If credibility on television (not actual truthfulness) is what counts, politicians don’t have to tell the truth—they just have to appear sincere. Thus, Nixon’s biggest problem wasn’t lying, but looking like a liar on television.

In contrast, Ronald Reagan, a former actor, looked good and came across as so sincere on television that...

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Shortform Exercise: Are You Well-Informed?

Neil Postman argues that Americans are well entertained but poorly informed because the news we receive is fragmented, incoherent, and selected for its entertainment value. In addition, we don’t question it.


Where do you get most of your news? Why do you use this medium?

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 8: Television Co-opts Religion

When a form of discourse transitions from one medium to another, a lot may be lost or significantly changed in the translation, including tone, meaning, and value.

For example, poetry often translates poorly to another language; a condolence expressed by a card is different from one offered in person; and instruction by a computer differs from face-to-face instruction by a teacher.

As the medium of television has changed print-based conceptions and expectations of politics, news, and information, it’s also changing the essence of religion, in both message and presentation.

In 42 hours of watching religious programming in the 1980s, the author concluded:

  • As a result of television’s biases, religion becomes entertainment.
  • On television, religion loses its sacredness, spiritual transcendence, and sense of the profound.
  • It’s decontextualized from theology, tradition, dogma, or ritual.
  • God plays second fiddle to the preacher/performer.

Dazzled Preachers

Yet television preachers seem to assume that the meaning and quality of church-based religious experience translates to television.

This is because they’re dazzled and deluded by gaining access to...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 9: The Television Commercial as Discourse

Television has also changed, if not undermined, the central idea of capitalism.

An outgrowth of the Enlightenment, capitalism envisioned reasonable, informed buyers and sellers engaging rationally in transactions of mutual interest and benefit. In a competitive marketplace, value would be paramount—buyers could recognize value and wouldn’t buy a bad product.

However, television—or more specifically, the television commercial—upends this model of the consumer as rational. Making a rational decision requires a discourse: the seller makes a proposition, or claims about the products, which the buyer subjects to rational analysis.

But commercials don’t make product claims. They’re based on images—not words—designed to appeal to emotions; they’re mini-dramas. For a commercial, truth is irrelevant—the viewer can like or hate it, but he can’t refute it.

Television has shifted the focus of advertising from the nature and quality of the product to the character of the consumer—that is, to his...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 10: Education as Entertainment

Public education, too, has fallen under the influence and dictates of television, which is redefining knowledge and how to acquire it.

The transition began in 1969 with the introduction of Sesame Street, which most children, parents, and educators immediately loved. Parents liked it because it made them feel good about letting kids watch TV. Teachers liked it because it made it easier to teach children to read.

But while it has helped to teach reading, television has undermined teaching and learning in the same way it’s undermined other aspects of public life.

Teachers thought television would teach children to love school. But television teaches children to love school only when it’s entertaining like Sesame Street. It sabotages the idea of traditional schooling in that:

  • It’s solitary rather than a social activity like school, where children learn social skills...

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Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary Amusing Ourselves to Death Guide Chapter 11: Huxley’s Warning

When a nation defines its culture as non-stop entertainment, it’s at risk of cultural disintegration. In America, Huxley’s predictions are coming to fruition. With our full embrace of television, we’ve unconsciously undertaken an experiment in giving ourselves over to the distractions of technology.

An Orwellian threat would be more obvious—we know what authoritarianism looks like. But we haven’t recognized entertainment technology as our ideology. Like an ideology, television imposes a system of ideas and ideals, a way of life. It’s launched a cultural revolution in America without discussion, a vote, or resistance.

So how do we save ourselves from a Huxleyan fate? Of course, not everyone will think it’s necessary, but for those who do, there are only a few paths.

First, realize that Americans will never give up any technology. It also isn’t possible to limit people’s use of technology, although there may be temporary benefits from voluntary efforts like designating a...

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Shortform Exercise: Are We Headed for a Brave New World?

Neil Postman argued that we may be headed for a Brave New World scenario where entertainment technology rather than democracy is becoming our ideology. To regain control we need to question how technology affects our thinking.


What does democracy mean to you? What are its foundations?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Foreword
  • Part 1 | Chapter 1: Media are Metaphors for Reality
  • Chapter 2: Media Define Truth
  • Chapters 3-4: Print Culture in Early America
  • Exercise: How Much Do You Read?
  • Chapter 5: Decontextualizing the World
  • Part 2 | Chapter 6: The Entertainment Age
  • Chapter 7: Television Redefines Truth
  • Exercise: Are You Well-Informed?
  • Chapter 8: Television Co-opts Religion
  • Chapter 9: The Television Commercial as Discourse
  • Chapter 10: Education as Entertainment
  • Chapter 11: Huxley’s Warning
  • Exercise: Are We Headed for a Brave New World?