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Book summary: Amusing ourselves to death

This is the first part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.

This first part will cover the eight most important ideas in the book. The second part will cover more concrete ideas about how TV’s mentality has taken over politics, education, and other areas. The third and last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. That last part is going to be long!

EDIT: Add link to the other posts.

Main ideas

  1. How a society conducts conversations has a strong influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture. Eg. “the news of the day”, ie. disconnected events happening far away, did not (and could not) exist in a world that lacked the media to advertise them quickly and efficiently. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.

  2. As TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines. However, this book is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology (in this book’s context, epistemology is “the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come”; see excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22), not aesthetics. That is, there is no objection to “junk” on TV, and that’s in fact its good part.

  3. Telegraphy gave a new meaning to public discourse by making relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.

  4. The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents. This makes us “unable” to remember history, which has many negative implications.

  5. The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. It was to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning: not understanding implications, background, or connections, but instead knowing of lots of things. Excellent example on p. 75. [Compare to social media –Esteban]

  6. We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.

  7. Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?

  8. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. [This book was published in 1985! –Esteban]

Conclusions

This is a very interesting book, although some sections are a little bit abstract. However, in general it is fairly easy to read, and everything is explained quite well.

If you have any interest in ways of thinking, especially at a society level, or politics, or media, this book is highly recommended.