Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death


Amusing Ourselves to Death

Published in 1985, Neil Postman’s Amusing to Death, written upon the different media of communication, has been called a ‘21st century book in the 20th century’. The book was absolutely relevant for all media except for the newly emerging media like the internet, although it shares many similarities with TV but has many defining differences. However, the real contribution of the book is the philosophical explanation of the nature of a medium and its effect on what is being conveyed through it; that is, the medium itself carries an identity of itself, as a metaphor. It taints the message. It has certain capacities, which implies limitation. It dictates, often times, what is true, or nearer to truth, and what is not. For instance, a written book does not attribute the same credibility to a quote from oral conversation as much as to some other published work. This theoretical and philosophical treatment of the medium, discussed in a few chapters, makes its reader more conscious, more critical, hence more educated about everything that can communicate a message to us. It is a solemn and daring attack on the ‘plug-in-drug’ – the TV, to begin with.


The book is divided into two parts: first, a philosophical and critical exposition of the relation between knowing the truth and the medium in which knowledge is conveyed, and its effects on a culture; the second part talks about the rise of photography and TV, and the TV’s negative effects on public discourse, politics, religion and education.


Old America (17th till early 20th century) was a book-based culture, which helped people engage in sophisticated, rational and logical discourse. Neil goes to great lengths to prove the high quality of public discourse (or khitab in Arabic, which means “speech aimed at imparting understanding to someone who is prepared for understanding”) by pointing to the higher number of book publications and its readers in the US, greater than England. Its authors were equivalent to present-day celebrities or sport athletes. More impressive is the involvement of the general public (including labourers) in literary topics and politics, and their regular participation in complex public debates in almost every major town – debates spread over hours.


It is also a history of the rise and fall of the mediums of communications, such as oral speech, written word, telegram, and the TV (the latter’s fall is yet to come). At first, oral speech reigned in the world. The legal system was based on proverbs and general principles and not on written statutes and laws; thought and communication took place in it. Then came the printing press in the 17th century, which made printed books and works the king. All serious discourse globally started to take place in it. No society, as per Neil, was more at the forefront of championing the cause of book reading than America. He quotes how thousands of copies of a new Dickens’ novel would be sold in a matter of days. The real celebrities of that time were the authors and the speakers on most literary and profound topics, such as arts, religion, culture, science and politics. Oral speeches in abundant lecture halls, which attracted people from all walks of life, were based on books and linked back to books. The attention span of those avid book readers was phenomenal: one debate between Lincoln and Douglas went on for about seven hours with one recess for dinner. The leading religious preachers were also the leading scholars of that time. In short, Postman paints a very idealized picture of the pre-TV and pre-Telegraphy period, one that seems to have been lost forever. And he is pretty justified in that. However, he fails to mention that hardly any serious and sophisticated debates of Lincoln’s type were taking place onwards till the television’s entry, according to a New York Times reviewer.


With the invention of telegraphy, a new medium came to the forefront. Because of the limited space, a telegram message constantly conveyed fragments of de-contextualized news information, leaving people with an incoherent view of the world. Photography would mesmerize people with speech-less pixels that made no arguments, hence could not be refuted. This surely relieved its audience from taking the pain of understanding and responding to propositional arguments. Newspapers only excelled at that by flooding bits of news from all parts of the world, which have little to do with the sphere of action of a particular society. And the television was to become the king of distraction, leisure, fragmentary information, sensationalism, trivial pursuits, superficial images, brief, insufficient and hasty explanation, etc. Whereas a book explains things coherently, provides the context, and goes into details of complex matters; a photo does not have the capacity as a medium to do it, and a TV show cannot afford to bore people with long, perplexing, inquiring, and non-sensational conversation. This has dumbed people down into believing that every issue has a quick-fix and requires surface knowledge. It has reduced people’s attention spans and their ability to think long-term, objectively and without emotions. These are some of the serious charges Postman levels against the TV or such audio-visual mediums, and his insights are invaluable.


The plight of TV addicts – be them avid news and current affairs viewers, or mere junk consumers – has been summarized as following by Postman: ”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.” The keyword of the book is ‘entertainment’. That is the key by which the TV triumphed. That is the reason why it exists. That is the evil it spreads. Turning everything into an entertainment (defined as something that makes people relax, enjoy, and forget about the pain of thinking, feeling, guilt, and burden).


Take the example of the presentation of the most tragic of events on the TV: a breaking news flashes on the screen with dramatic music and takes us to a site where a suicide bomb took place; the dramatic coverage with graphic images is followed by anchor saying, “Join us tomorrow,” sandwiching between regular, happy-go-lucky, musical commercials. Personally, this is something that we all are now accustomed to, and this is exactly the description of TV news provided by Postman. The greater tragedy is our lack of worry and deep reflection on the state of affairs, because TV programming does not want its viewers to switch the TV off and go to prayer mats or into reflection or to do something about the victims (like it used to be in old days when after a funeral we would not watch the TV for days).


The TV is also an opium and fosters a very simplistic, non-perplexing and short-cut approach to life and its big challenges, and a medium that has done much harm to the serious, literary culture of the American society. Whatever information lacks complexity, substance, history and context to it is nothing but entertainment, Postman has shown that with lively examples from various TV programs. However, he does not totally play down the ability of the medium of the TV in making people think clearly and deeply, for he himself appeared on a particular show, ‘The Open Mind’, to discuss the book.


The plague of entertainment as a goal and a tool for success in life is widespread in the American culture. After doing a critique of the influence of a given medium on people’s knowledge and culture, he moves on to provide examples (from politics, religion and education) of TV’s degradation of the American society. In all these areas, entertainment is the goal, the defining element of success and the tool. Religious preachers, politicians and educators (e.g., Sesame Street) adopt the same methods of presentation that a movie star, an entertainer, a comedian, etc., would adopt. For instance, a detailed analysis by Postman of the presidential campaigns reveals how much American politicians imitate actors to win the race! The TV programs in these areas have not served their cause, but only the television, Postman contends.


There are critics of Postman too, despite the widespread fame of the book to this day. The first are the TV and newspaper outlets that have presented their arguments against the book by merely not mentioning it in their daily news or columns. The second class consists of reviewers and thinkers. Stephen Johnson wrote, “Everything Bad Is Good For You”, arguing that every major argument of Postman lacks reasonable grounds. The major criticism levelled against Postman is that some of his opinionated arguments lack empirical evidence or information to prove his claim. For instance, he says that the Americans were ”quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world”, without showing any evidence for such a bold claim.


The approach of Postman towards this subject should appeal to an Islamic mind which is always wary of show business, pretensions and surface knowledge. Muslims abhor graven images, and drawing pictures of living beings is a sin according to most scholars, if not all. Postman writes, “I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why [God prohibited graven images]. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures… The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.” This pretty much summarizes his view of the relationship of the medium and the message.


The message of the book should be intuitive to thoughtful minds. If much of the arguments and insights presented in the book are not new to you in the sense that you had intuitive understanding of it, then you will be delighted to read the book and have your beliefs and suspicions confirmed about the hollowness (if not outright sinister nature) of the TV. We live in a world where people are losing their ability to think and converse about serious matters in a non-entertaining way, especially on TV. It needs to be read and discussed before we completely lose our culture at the hands of such anti-Islamic and anti-seriousness elements that dominate the TV, i.e., the show Business.

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