Not many books offer social critiques so trenchant they become classics. Even fewer pull off this feat in fewer than two hundred pages. Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death does both.
The book remains relevant thirty years after its initial publication. At the heart of its argument is the claim that television has radically altered every aspect of American life for the worse. Television, Postman claims, has changed religion, politics, and culture by rendering them little more than entertainment. Or rather, television has changed Americans by causing us to expect every aspect of life to be a source of entertainment.
Postman is right about this, but he’s also right about his secondary claim. American culture has been changed, he argues, because the people who inhabit it have been changed. Television, he claims, has changed the very nature of our minds. Early in the book, Postman describes the differences between what he calls the “typographic mind” and what we might call the “televisual mind.”
The typographic mind reflects the characteristics of written discourse. It is language-based, linear, capable of sustained reflection, orderly. The televisual mind is image-based, associative, focused on surfaces, capricious, and shallow. People no longer simply choose not to engage the world in deep ways, Postman argues, but because of the effects of television, they can’t.
Postman gets something right here about the heart of postmodern society. People are, for the most part, unable to think beyond the narratives established by the media. Few people are capable of the sustained reflection required for breaking out of the system of values foisted on them by consumer culture. Thinking is serious labor, and it’s made even harder when the tool for thinking, the mind, adopts the limiting habits of entertainment culture.
Postman is probably overstating his case when he argues the condition of the postmodern mind is exclusively the result of television. There are other factors. Television is powerful, but it isn’t the only source of values. Certainly it isn’t the only source of values about itself. Television’s power would have been more limited, for example, had parents, teachers, and other cultural authorities not adopted it so uncritically. There is blame to go around.
Whatever its sources, the televisual mind, along with its habits and values, now dominates our public discourse and our private lives. The situation has worsened in the age of the Internet. Where once we had thirteen channels to choose from on television, we now have hundreds of millions of interlinking webpages. The fracturing of our capacity to pay attention, to think deeply and well, has continued correspondingly.
Our fate is not sealed. The televisual mind is not a terminal illness. Its symptoms can be reversed. One way to do so is by reading. Reading almost anything will, for most people, be beneficial because the habits of mind that reading establishes matter as much or more than the content of the page.
Still, some books are better than others. Books can transport us, or enlighten us about the places and times in which we live. If your goal is understanding the cultural situation in which you live, understanding why people are the way they are, then Amusing Ourselves to Death is a good place to start.
You can buy Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business here.
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