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Quick Summary: “Amusing Ourselves to Death” explores whether Aldous Huxley’s fictional and dystopian vision of the future described in “Brave New World” hasn’t already turned into the reality of our TV-dominated and image-centered present. Spoiler alert: it has, and reality shows and Netflix are our pleasure drugs, our very own soma.
Who Should Read “Amusing Ourselves to Death”? And Why?
Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the classics in the fields of cultural criticism and media studies so everyone interested in them should have already read it.
However, Neil Postman’s 1984 vision about the world of today seems so true that we think everybody should read this book.
Not reading it would be basically synonymous with ignoring a traffic post sign saying “Stop. Dead End. No outlet.”
We’re serious about this.
Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary
When 1984 came, and George Orwell’s vision of a world run by totalitarian governments didn’t pan out the way everybody feared it would, “American sang softly in praise of themselves.” And they sang even louder six years later when the USSR fell to pieces.
Neil Postman, however, was a bit worried. Because, in his mind, humanity was losing the battle and – what’s worse – it was losing it on a largely ignored field.
And that’s the message Postman wanted to relay to the participants of a panel on Orwell at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984.
His main point?
Orwell may have been wrong about the future, and that is one fight we won; however, Aldous Huxley was dead-on right, and, unfortunately, that is the war we’ll eventually lose.
George Orwell vs. Aldous Huxley
But aren’t Orwell and Huxley saying the same thing?
Absolutely not, says Neil Postman.
“Contrary to common belief even among the educated,” he writes, “Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
And then Postman explains the differences between 1984 and of Brave New World.
First and foremost, he says, Orwell – just like Bradbury – feared censorship and people banning books; Huxley, on the other hand, feared that there would be no reason to ban books in the future because nobody would be reading them.
Secondly, Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information; Huxley feared the ones who would give us so much “that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”
In plainer terms, Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared that the truth “would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
Thirdly, Orwell feared that humans would become slaves; Huxley, on the other hand, feared that humans might just become too free. In fact, Huxley explicitly remarked in Brave New World Revisited that the civil libertarians and rationalists always oppose tyranny but fail “to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
Fourthly, Orwell feared a world where we will be controlled by inflicting pain; Huxley a world where we will be controlled by inflicting pleasure.
“In short,” Postman concludes, “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Game, set, and match.
Whatever Happens in Vegas… Happens in the USA As Well
“At different times in our history,” writes Neil Postman at the beginning of Amusing Ourselves to Death, “different cities have been the focal point of a radiating American spirit.”
In the late 18th century, for example, Boston “was the center of a political radicalism that ignited a shot heard round the world;” and, in a way, during the struggle for American independence, even Virginians became Bostonians. And this was all embodied in a recognizable statue: the Minuteman.
Soon after, America, symbolically, became New York: “the melting-pot” for the “wretched refuse” of the world. We don’t need to tell you the figurative embodiment of New York’s spirit: the Statue of Liberty.
And then, in the early 20th century, Chicago, “the city of big shoulders and heavy winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America.” The statue that should personify this period: a hog butcher, an appropriate “reminder of the time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills and entrepreneurial adventures.”
The city that represents the American spirit – call it the global spirit, if you will – today?
Las Vegas, Nevada, “a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.”
Its symbol is “a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl” and the very fact that this is possible spells doom – not in the Orwellian boom, but in the Eliotian whimper kind of way.
“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce,” writes Postman ominously, “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.”
The (D)evolution of the Culture
To understand how we got there, you need to understand the transformation of our culture: from word-based to image-based one.
It may sound theoretical at the moment, but by the end of this summary, you’ll probably understand what it actually means much better than you’ll even want to.
The 18th Century: Books
First, lets’ go back to the years when the USA was established.
Back in 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense; the book, as you know full well from your high-school classes, sold about 100,000 copies in just three months and a half million by the end of the decade.
And you know how many people lived in the United States according to its first (1790) census?
A little less than 4 million!
In other words, a sixth of the American population bought and, based on the discussions at the time, read the book.
Even according to conservative estimates, that would mean that a book has to sell about 40-50,000,000 copies today to be considered as successful as Paine’s!
And, let’s face it, Paine’s book wasn’t a cookbook or an epic fantasy novel.
The First Half of the 19th Century: Debates
In the 19th century, things took off from where one would expect them to: the American (and the global) culture became word-centered to the point that many intellectuals casually talked in a style that, to today’s readers, would seem pretty much indistinguishable from writing.
Let’s go back to the middle of the century, for example.
On October 16, 1854, two future presidential candidates – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas – gave speeches which lasted for hours and hours.
More precisely, first Douglas delivered a 3-hour address to the people of Peoria, Illinois, to which Lincoln, by agreement, was supposed to respond.
And you know what Lincoln did?
He proposed that the audience go home and have a dinner and then return because he would probably need at least as much time as Douglas (in fact, he took an hour more).
Postman’s amazement doesn’t stop at the speakers.
“What kind of audience was this?” he asks “Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?”
It’s even more amazing to think that Douglas and Lincoln weren’t presidential candidates in 1854; in fact, they weren’t even candidates for the Senate back then.
And yet, many people spent most of their days listening to their speeches.
Nowadays, even a 20-minute dissertation defense seems boring and long.
The Second Half of the 19th Century: Telegraphy and Photography
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden a few months before Lincoln and Douglas had one of their first many-hours-long debates, doubting the benefits (or even the need) of the telegraphic cable.
“We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new,” he went on, “but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
Most of Thoreau’s assessment may sound a bit outdated, but he was right (and far-seeing) about one thing.
Namely, the fact that we are so well-connected may mean that we are nominally better informed, but more data doesn’t mean that we’re getting closer to the truth.
In fact, it means the opposite: we are unable to distinguish not only between truth and lies, but also between relevant and non-relevant information.
In retrospect, the Telegraph struck the first blow to the Word (and in an Orwellian Newspeak manner), but Photography knocked it out cold.
Suddenly, advertisers realized that an image is worth a thousand words, and that, when taken out of context, it may have the value of a million more.
And that’s how show-business was born.
The 20th Century: A Century of Actors
When Amusing Ourselves to Death was first published, the President of the United States was Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood movie actor.
In the meantime – and this is scary, we’re telling you this is scary – we’ve managed to make a step forward: now, the actors are in the Senate, and our president is a former reality TV star!
What’s next? A dog for a president?
We’re not overreacting here!
Because the problem – spotted by Neil Postman and growing worse by the decade – is a pretty serious one.
Namely, more than smart people, we like pop-stars; and more than serious intellectual endeavors, we want entertainment.
That’s why the people who get to the high places have become, more often than not, pop-stars who entertain.
It’s their faces we are interested in – not their words.
Word-Centered vs. Image-Centered Culture
To understand the evolution outlined above better, you need to understand that before the advent of photography and telegraphy, “the printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, there being no other means, besides the oral tradition, to have access to public knowledge.”
Consequently, public figures – even the most famous ones – were almost exclusively known through their written words – not by their looks and not even by their oratory.
“It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States,” writes Neil Postman thought-provokingly, “would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen in the street. This would have been the case as well of the great lawyers, ministers, and scientists of that era.”
In other words, to think about these great men meant, by definition, to think about what they had written, “to judge them by their public positions, their arguments, their knowledge as codified in the printed word.”
And you already sense where this is going.
Quite probably, the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, or Billy Graham – or to be more contemporary: Trump, Obama, Bush – is an image, a picture of their face, and most likely one seen on the television screen.
Want one better?
You think you know him, right – because you’ve seen quite a few photographs of his face; however, think about his writings and “almost nothing will come to mind,” because, well, let’s face it: you haven’t read anything.
That’s the basic difference between thinking in a word-centered and an image-centered culture.
The latter is hardly thinking, isn’t it?
The main culprit?
TV, of course.
The Twilight of Intellectualism: Television
Of course you don’t agree with the title!
But that’s precisely the problem.
Because, in a very real manner, the title is all but a fact: you can’t consider yourself an intellectual if you spend four or five hours watching TV.
And that’s how many hours the average American spends in front of the television!
Since you’re already resistant to insights such as this, let Neil Postman explain to you a thing or two about your TV-watching habits.
The Three Commandments of Television
Even though he speaks primarily about “the philosophy of the education which television offers,” we don’t think that we’re wrong if we say, paraphrasing Neil Postman, that all TV programs adhere to three commandments:
#1. Thou shalt have no prerequisites
In other words: no prior knowledge is necessary. “There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation,” notes Postman. “The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice.”
#2. Thou shalt induce no perplexity
The more complicated a TV program is, the fewer viewers it has. Do we really need to spell it out for you? That means that all television is simple by definition. “It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.”
#3. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt
This one may sound a bit more complicated, but it is still a pretty simple commandment, boiling down to the simplest idea of all: television is all about story-telling, and not one bit about “arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter.”
All in all, whether you’re watching a commercial or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Sesame Street or Star Trek – they are all primarily interested in framing their lessons in simple images and stories that can be gobbled down immediately and without prior knowledge.
The Dissolution of Public Discourse
To sum up, TV is for us what the gladiator fights were for Rome.
And we know for a fact that Roman generals used gladiator fights as a smokescreen, as a way to do what they want while the public is entertained to death – for some guys, quite literally.
What does that say about our TV-watching habits?
Well, almost nothing good.
First and foremost, that we’ve managed to transform reality into an entertainment show – and that we are not even aware of this.
Don’t believe us?
Think of the news, first. Why do they have beautiful hosts and presenters? Why do they have music? Why do they relate most of their news in a story-like fashion? Finally, why are they interspersed with commercials? Does it really make any sense for you to hear about the mass shootings at a school and then see a McDonalds commercial?
And what about the public debates? Think of it this way: in a world of alternate facts (created by TV), does it matter who tells the truth? Of course not. And that’s why the victor is always the best showman. That’s why the Jordan Peterson vs. Slavoj Zizek debate was such an event: the two are primarily showmen.
The absurd go to such heights that there are nowadays religious TV channels. Really? What’s so sacred about the very medium which created this world which habitually glorifies show-biz scandals, violence, and sex?
Well, except for the money that is.
A Call for Worse TV
Is there a way out?
Well, according to Neil Postman, there is; but it’s counter-intuitive.
Namely – bad TV.
“Television,” concludes Postman, “serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse—news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion—and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.”
Postman has them:
“The A-Team” and “Cheers,” he says, are no threat to our public health. However, TV programs such as “60 Minutes,” “Eye-Witness News” and “Sesame Street” are.
You know their modern correlatives.
Stop watching them.
And, more importantly, don’t ever allow your kids to watch them.
Key Lessons from “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
1. Orwell Was, Fortunately, Wrong; Huxley, Unfortunately, Wasn’t
2. We Live in an Image-Centered World – and That’s Very Bad
3. The Three Commandments of (Educational) TV
Orwell Was, Fortunately, Wrong; Huxley, Unfortunately, Wasn’t
We all know Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future from 1984; anyone who is old enough to remember the days of communism knows full well how much we feared it might become a reality. Fortunately, both Orwell and our parents were wrong.
Unfortunately, says Neil Postman, another dystopian vision of the future has, in the meantime, turned into reality: the one prophesized by Huxley in Brave New World.
The main difference between the two?
Orwell believed that we would be controlled through inflictions of pain (the boot stomping on a human face), but Huxley feared that we would one day be controlled through inflictions of pleasure.
According to Postman, though we’ve escaped the former, we’re living in the latter, TV being our modern-day soma.
We Live in an Image-Centered World – and That’s Very Bad
The world of the 19th century was a word-centered one: people knew other people (even presidential candidates and scientists) merely through their words.
Most of the first fifteen US presidents would have probably been able to walk the street unnoticed by the majority; but even if they had written something anonymously, they would have probably been found out.
Nowadays, it’s the other way around: we know how Einstein looks like, even though we haven’t read anything by him (and barely a few Wikipedia sentences about him).
The image-centered world destroys our capability to think properly; we are bombarded by images, and we are incapable of making proper sense of the world.
The Three Commandments of (Educational) TV
The main culprit for the pervasiveness of this image-centered world philosophy is, of course, TV.
And TV, according to Postman, adheres as strictly to three commandments as fundamental Judaists adhere to Moses commandants.
And these are:
#1. Thou shalt have no prerequisites;
#2. Thou shalt induce no perplexity;
#3. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.
In summary, they mean that all TV (regardless whether it’s the news or Cosmos, Star Trek or commercials) is packaged in simple narratives which require no previous knowledge to be digested.
But learning doesn’t work that way; neither does intellectual thinking.
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Amusing Ourselves to Death QuotesOrwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. Click To Tweet Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. Click To Tweet Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. Click To Tweet The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Click To Tweet We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Click To Tweet
Amusing Ourselves to Death is a well-written and well-argued book, both immensely powerful and (unfortunately) amazingly far-sighted in its predictions.
“As a fervent evangelist of the age of Hollywood,” wrote Camille Paglia recently and apologetically, proving this, “I publicly opposed Neil Postman’s dark picture of our media-saturated future. But time has proved Postman right. He accurately foresaw that the young would inherit a frantically all-consuming media culture of glitz, gossip, and greed.”
Highly, highly recommended.
Before it’s too late.