Can the way we consume information make us unable to tell truth from lies? Neil Postman thought so. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman says everything has been turned into entertainment: Our politics, religion, news, athletics, our commerce – even our education – have all been turned into forms of entertainment. This has weakened our ability to reason about society’s important questions. In this Amusing Ourselves to Death book summary, I’ll break down – in my own words – why Postman believes the shift from a society built around reading, to a society built around moving pictures and music, has devolved our discourse into a dangerous level of nonsense.
America was built upon reading
In 1854, in a lecture hall in Peoria, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was in a debate. His debate opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, had just finished a three-hour speech. Lincoln reminded the audience it was 5 p.m., he himself would be speaking for at least three hours, and Douglas would get a chance to respond. He told the audience, Go home, have dinner, and come back for four more hours of lecture.
Is today’s technology “nothing new?”
Every time a new technology comes along, there are people who think the sky is falling. There are also people who say it’s nothing new. They’ll show you that old picture of men on a commuter train, with their faces buried in newspapers, or they might remind you Socrates worried people would be made forgetful by the breakthrough technology of: writing. If we think back to our own memories from ten or twenty years ago, we have to conclude that not much has changed. It’s different technology, with the same people.
Yes, attention spans are shorter
But this scene from Lincoln’s debate from more than 150 years ago is a stark contrast from today’s world. It’s hard to imagine ordinary citizens gathering in the local lecture hall to sit and listen to seven hours of debate, without so much as a smartphone to stay occupied if things got dull. What’s even more remarkable is neither Lincoln nor Douglas were presidential candidates at the time – they weren’t even candidates for the Senate.
America was the most reading-focused culture ever
Postman uses this lecture scene to paint a picture of what he says was probably the most print-oriented culture ever. Unlike in England, in Colonial America reading wasn’t an elitist activity. Postman estimates that the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was around 90 or 95%. Farm boys plowed the fields with a book in hand, reading Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau.
Thomas Paine, who wrote the mega-best-selling Common Sense had little formal schooling, and before coming to America, had come from England’s lowest laboring class. Still, Paine wrote political philosophy on par with Voltaire and Rousseau.
When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, it was as if a movie star had visited. Dickens himself said, “There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds.”
Today’s media is built around images
Since Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in the 1980’s, it’s not concerned with Facebook nor TikTok nor Twitter. It’s concerned with television. But as Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”, and the characteristics of the television medium translate well into the characteristics of today’s media. Today’s media isn’t built around words – it’s built around images.
Television is images
It’s easy to turn the channel on a television, or to turn the television off completely. They sit running in the house while people do other things. Remember from my Understanding Media summary that pieces of content within a medium compete with one another in what I summed up as a “Darwinian battle.” Only the strong survive, and to survive on t