Neil Postman - Amusing and Informing Ourselves to Death

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

26 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
2.1 The Theory: Medium, Content, Culture
2.2 The Age of Exposition
2.3 Entering the Age of Show Business
2.3.1 Television = Age of Show Business
2.3.2 Example News: Entertainment and Disinformation
2.3.3 Example: Commercials
2.4 Critical Remarks

3. Informing Ourselves to Death?
3.1 Mass Media in the United States in the 21st Century
3.2 The Internet
3.3 A New Love Affair

4. Conclusion

5. Resources

1. Introduction

The central topics of the works of the writer, educator, communication theorist, social critic and cultural commentator Neil Postman have always been the media, their different forms of communication and their meanings to people, society and culture. Any of his books was built around the McLuhan-question: “Does the form of any medium of communication affect our social relations, our political ideas, or psychic habits, and of course, as he [Marshall McLuhan] always emphasized, our sensorium” (Postman: 07/30/05)? Postman was aware of the fact that a new technology and therefore a new medium may have destructive as well as creative effects. During the history of mankind there have been tremendous changes in the forms, volume, speed and context of information and it is necessary to find out what these changes meant and mean to our cultures (Postman: 1985, 160). For him, it is a basic principle that “the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation” (Postman: 1985, 8). In the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” Postman examines, from a 1980s viewpoint, the changes in the American culture caused by the shift from the Age of Reason with the printed word at its center to the Age of Show Business with television as the central medium - or in simplifying terms the shift from rationality to triviality. Twenty years later, the situation has changed again. This term paper will make an attempt to answer the question what the new media, especially the internet, did to the modern (American) culture and to its public discourse. Obviously, Postman’s provocative title “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was just the beginning of a fast moving development since nowadays the modern media world seems to shape our lives under the title “Informing Ourselves to Death” (Postman: 07/30/05) or to use one of the latest terms “Infotaining Ourselves to Death”.

..First of all, the following chapters will examine the line of Postman’s argumentation which led to the conclusion that television has significantly transformed the American society into an amusement and entertainment culture. What has happened and what was the role of the media? Was this the beginning of a “Brave New World”? As a matter of fact, Postman´s theories and statements are not to be taken as unreflected truth. Subsequently,some critical remarks are to be made from a 21st-century viewpoint. The second part of the paper will focus on the modern media world of the United States. How does the modern American media market look like? What is the situation of the old and new media? Especially, the internet has to be examined in this section of the paper. Which effects does the internet have on the people and their culture? Does the multimedia age destroy more than it creates? Is the internet as a new medium a threat to the public discourse and therefore for our minds and our cultures or not? Is “culture-death” still a clear possibility as Postman saw it in 1985?

2. “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

2.1 The Theory: Medium, Content, Culture

Postman clearly refers to Plato in1 developing the idea that how we communicate strongly influences the ideas we communicate and this eventually makes up the contents of our culture. If we want to know what our culture is and contains we have to find out about its forms of communication. The media which are available to a culture always have a dominant influence on the formation of its intellectual and social preoccupation. There are, for example, significant differences between the oral culture of a traditional African tribe and the multi-media culture of western democracies. In the first one, information has to be transported from mouth to ear and therefore, only a reduced amount (the things that can be kept in mind) can be communicated; the content is often reduced to a here and now. In a modern culture with loads of technical possibilities, much more information and all kinds of information (e.g. political, scientific, entertaining, and trivial) with any character (e.g. written, oral, visual) can be recorded, filed, transferred, and replayed. The forms of communication of a modern society clearly enlarge the world and its experiences. Because of this, the forms of public discourse may always regulate and dictate the kind of content. “The form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be” (Postman: 1985, 31). And what we communicate is who we are.

Central to this approach is the medium - the form of our communication.

Marshall McLuhan once declared “The medium is the message”. In his understanding, the medium makes a concrete statement about the world. Each medium makes possible a unique mode of discourse as it provides a new orientation for thought, expression and sensibility. Postman goes beyond this notion in arguing that the forms of our media do not simply make concrete statements. They are rather like metaphors which classify the world for us. They enforce special definitions of reality, they may shape the experience of our world and therefore they may change our way of thinking2 and through this, they create the content of our culture.

These assumptions lead to the conclusion that a new medium of communication always comprises a new expression, a new sensibility and a new thought which will recreate the culture it is set in. A new medium may cause a perceptual revolution and the transformation of our forms of thinking and the concepts of truth. “In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself” (Postman: 1985, 14). Although it is generally realized that there have been shifts in the media landscape, people often do not think any further about consequences and meanings of these developments, so Postman’s criticism. There are essential questions which have to be stated and answered and this process will lead to a better understanding of the media: What is the certain medium? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce? - “For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are” (Postman: 1985, 161).

2.2 The Age of Exposition

The name I give to3 that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition. Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business. (Postman: 1985, 63)

From the beginning on, print has played a major role in the American culture. In the 17th and 18th century, the American society was a classless reading culture. The Americans were committed to the printed word, there was a very high literacy rate and the first newspapers were established as early as at the end of the 17th century. “From its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of” (Postman: 1985, 40-41).

Print was virtually all that was available. A monopoly of the printed word was in existence and because of this, print became the model, the metaphor and the measure of all discourse. Postman emphasizes that the importance of the printed words is to be seen in the characteristics of the discourse it produces. Print and the written word rely on a lineal and analytical structure. Public discourse “tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas” (Postman: 1985, 51). Further on, the priority was given to an objective and rational use of the mind which resulted in a public discourse that was language-centered, content- laden, rational and serious. The process of reading was also affected by this. Reading meant comprehending. And for most people reading was both their connection to and their model of the world. “The printed page revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism” (Postman: 1985, 61-62). Even oratorical performances were in their language modelled on the style of the written word. Especially, the political debates of the 19th century are to be mentioned here as an example.4 For most of the people of that time, the “use of language as a means of complex argument was an important, pleasurable and common form of discourse in almost every public arena” (Postman: 1985, 47). Therefore, the 18th and 19th century was stamped to be the Age of Reason and in Postman’s words the Age of Exposition.

The evaluation of the Age of Exposition by the author clearly points out that language and with it the written word has an outstanding position in his reception and analysis of the American culture, its public discourse and its media changes, especially in comparison with the following Age of Show Business which changed public discourse substantially. Language with its capacities and intellectual requirements seems to be the unchallenged winner in a virtual ranking order of the various forms of communication. Postman is to be identified as a passionate “defender of the word” (Strate: 01/30/04).5

2.3 Entering the Age of Show Business

The Age of Show Business had its dawn at the beginning of the 19th century. The railroad system had already increased the tempo of the movement of information but only electricity put in service of communication eliminated the problem of space. By the mid-19th century, public discourse and its contents had changed because of the new technology of the telegraph. The former function of information as something to serve in social, political decision-making and action was substituted by a new value of information which can be summarized with the terms novelty, interest, and curiosity. People were now able to communicate much more information over long distances within shortest time intervals. This new form of communication logically had influences on its contents. Context, coherence and relevance lost their importance. Public discourse and therefore the news that were transmitted were characterized by Irrelevance - news from nowhere, adressed to no one in particular, there is no context Impotence - news effect personal opinions about which you can do nothing, they do not lead to action Incoherence - information not collected, explained or analyzed like in books but just moved. The establishment of the telegraph had a significant influence on content and culture. Public conversation and its content predominantly were sensational, fragmented, impersonal, discontinuous, and summarized in slogans. The quantity and quality of the information which was fastly moved from one place to another was that people knew a lot of things without really knowing about them. Photography as complement to the flood of telegraph news, in Postman´s opinion, made it even worse. “Seeing, not reading became the basis for believing” (Postman: 1985, 74). The irrelevant content of the telegraphic news was given a face or context by photography and this resulted in the perception that the combination of both of them was presenting a real and true event. The decontextualized information environment of the telegraph was now embedded into a pseudo-context - “a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. But the use the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem-solving, or change” (Postman: 1985, 76). The only way to make the useless information usable and useful was through amusement and entertainment; there was not much to learn from these kinds of information because of a lacking of meaning. Photography and the telegraph had set the key for a new kind of public discourse in America.

Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world - a peeka-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that is, like the child´s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing peek-a-boo. And there is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them. (Postman: 1985, 77)

Telegraphy and photography as the major communications media of the late 19th and the early 20th century “called the peek-a-boo world into existence, but we did not come to live there until television” (Postman: 1985, 78).

The Age of Show Business ultimately came into existence when television unfolded its power and became the most relevant source for the definitions of truth, knowledge and reality of the American society. Because of this, it has been thoroughly integrated with American culture. Television combined the main features and characteristics of photography and telegraphy. It raised “the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection” (Postman: 1985, 78) and therefore, it brought their entertaining factors forward which eventually became content and culture of the public discourse in America´s Television Age.

2.3.1 Television = Age of Show Business

Postman´s analysis of the situation of the public discourse in the United States in the mid-80s comes to the result that television did not only fulfill communicative functions of a medium in a society but it has totally changed the American culture; it even became its culture. TV shapes the public understanding, arranges the communications environment and has become the command center of this society. Its influence is present in any spheres of public interest. TV tells about the world, it shows the world and since the Americans have adjusted to the epistemology of TV it constructs the world.6 It has become the teacher, companion and friend of the Americans - “America´s consuming love-affair with television” (Postman: 1985, 156). As a result, Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (Postman: 1985, 3-4)

To understand how Postman came to this alarming conclusion, the essential questions which have been mentioned above need to be answered again7. TV is a beautiful spectacle and a visual delight. Thousands of images a day on screen offer a variety of subject matter. It only requires minimal skills to comprehend what is on TV. Another important characteristic of the medium is that it is largely aimed at emotional gratification and not at complex thought. It has always the commercial aim to reach as much audience as possible. It is entirely devoted to supplying this audience with entertainment since the formula goes: more entertainment is more viewers. Therefore, all subject matter is presented as entertainment, amusement and pleasure. “Entertainment is the supra- ideology of all discourse on television” (Postman: 1985, 87). The entertaining factor requires the integration of the values of show business in televised matters. Television presents performances rather than acts of thinking. Its language is fragmented and discontinuous as its shows are. Visuality is one of the main principles of the medium. It is important to achieve applause and not reflection. That is why pictures are much more important. They are more entertaining than contents or complex language. Not abstractions are brought into our hearts but personalities. The overwhelming position of entertainment in the production, broadcast and reception of TV “has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience” (Postman: 1985, 87).


1 This chapter mainly refers to the first 30 pages of the text and includes the titles “The Medium is the Metaphor” and “Media as Epistemology”.

2 The invention of the clock, for example, created the idea of “moment to moment“ which can be set by man and not by God or the nature. It is not the technical aspect of the clock which is important here but what it means for a culture.

3 This chapter mainly refers to the titles “Typographic America” and “The Typographic Mind” on pages 30 to 63 in the discussed book.

4 Postman mentions the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in the 1850s in which the politicians spoke for at least one hour each using a literary style with lengthy and complex sentences as well as rhetoric means. He argues that the audience was accustomed to these performances which demanded a remarkable ability to comprehend and concentrate as well as considerable knowledge of the issue.

5 The following passages refer to pages 64-114 from the book and include the chapters “The Peeka-Boo World”, “The Age of Show Business”, “Now…This”, “Shuffle Off to Betlehem”.

6 How TV stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged (Postman: 1985, 92).

7 „What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce” (Postman: 1985, 84)?

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Neil Postman - Amusing and Informing Ourselves to Death
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Orality and Literacy
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Neil, Postman, Amusing, Informing, Ourselves, Death, Orality, Literacy
Quote paper
Julia Schubert (Author), 2005, Neil Postman - Amusing and Informing Ourselves to Death, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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