Television’s Monsters – “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Revisited

Classics tend to be books which people would like to have read but never did. Neil Postman’s “Amusing ourselves to Death” is a classic which doesn’t deserve this fate. His counter-intuitive take on how our media shape our understanding of the world is more relevant than ever.

Prophecy is a notoriously difficult business and many great minds have embarrassed themselves trying.  In “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, first published in 1986, Neil Postman passes the prophet test with flying colors and writes whole passages which now read as eerily accurate descriptions of the present.

Even though the main focus of the book is on what Postman calls “the epistemology of television”, i.e. how a new medium like television shapes our understanding of what constitutes knowledge and how we acquire it, he briefly turns his attention to what in his day was called “computer technology” and has this to say about it:  “a central thesis of computer technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the  massive collection and speed of light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations, but have solved very little of what is important to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

Written in 1985, when Mark Zuckerberg was still a toddler, 13 years before Google was founded and two years before the term “big data” was allegedly coined by John Mashey.

The Concept of Truth

The core of Postman’s argument is that television’s rise to the position of America’s leading medium has transformed the American understanding of what constitutes knowledge and valuable information. In his view, media aren’t simply conveyors of information but define what is understood to be as true and important. He says that “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not and never has come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the truth is a kind of cultural prejudice. “

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” delivers a significant part of the explanation for the success of serial liar Donald Trump: “television provides a new definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. Credibility here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality testing.   It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity and vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one more) conveyed by the actor.”

Complex phenomena like the rise of Trump don’t lend themselves to monocausal explanations, but Postman’s observation regarding the changing nature of a culture’s perception of truth goes a long way in making sense of his appeal. The main point here is that Trump’s rise to power is not an aberration. It is the logical consequence of a culture which has adopted television as its most important medium. Donald Trump is nothing if not a creature of television and it is his authentic-seeming style, honed by years as a reality TV host, which represents truth in an age shaped by the epistemology of TV.

Don’t blame it on the Kardashians

The problem with television Postman warned about in 1986, isn’t that it produces trivial entertainment. His argument is more sophisticated than the standard conservative trope about the success of the Kardashians being a sign of decadent times. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood this way: “to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as a standard brand academic whimpering, and kind of elitist complaint against junk on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow.”

The problem he warned about wasn’t that television produced entertainment, but that on television, everything becomes entertainment.  He calls entertainment the “supra ideology” of television and says: “No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”

By reframing the world as the wellspring of a constant visual stream meant to entertain us, television has probably fueled what the American writer Chris Hedges calls the “cult of the self”. Information changes from something we need to adapt to our local circumstances to something we constantly consume, mostly without any meaningful consequence.

More than a Moral Critique

Television strengthens the illusion that the world exists to entertain us that we don’t live to serve, but that our infantile, insatiable consumer selves sit at the top of the pyramid. Plenty of books and articles have already been written about this dangerous development, so there is no need to pursue this train of thought further here.

Postman take was prescient and remains unique and interesting because it doesn’t just come in the form of a moral critique. There certainly is an element of that in the book, best exemplified by the ominous sentence on the back cover of my paperback edition: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when a cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture death is a clear possibility.”

It’s hard to deny that Trump and the current state of public affairs in the US spring to mind, but it would be facile and foolish to lean back in the armchair over here in Europe and assume that the dark prophecy has become true. The future remains open, the complexity of the world doesn’t fit neatly into the confines of any single theory.

Writing this in Germany, it is interesting to note in passing that part of the reason that Germany has been to significantly delay these problematic developments might be the national penchant for regulation, seriousness and the inherent conservatism of German society. Television, for example, still hasn’t become as ubiquitous as it is in the US.

From Telegraph to Television 

The true value of Postman contribution is his perspective on how different media shape of our understanding of who we are and what we perceive to be true. His perspective helps us to get beyond the naïve misunderstanding that media are neutral and that it doesn’t matter how the message is delivered.

The foundational medium of Western-style societies is the printing press. Postman says:   “Typography fostered the modern idea of individuality, but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and integration. Typography created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Typography made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into mere superstition. Typography assisted in the growth of the nation-state but thereby made patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion.”

These are sweeping assertions and it doesn’t matter if they are a 100% true or not. Postman helps to think about media and the way we understand the world differently. He invites us to switch our perspective.  Here is another example of this refreshing switch: “The clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded. Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And that, though few would have imagined that connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy then all treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.”

Postman’s story, the story of shifting media dominance from typography, via the telegraph and photography to television gives us a framework to think about the internet, the new medium which is well on its way to incorporate all others.

It helps us to ask more intelligent questions. Instead of asking what we should do with the internet, how we should regulate etc., we need to ask what it has already done to us, to our understanding of ourselves and what we perceive to be true. What is the epistemology of the internet? Has it just continued the trends already apparent with television, for example?

Is the credibility of the teller still the measure of truth? Is entertainment still the dominant “supra ideology”? On a deeper level, the book raises questions about the nature of human insight and understanding. How does human insight differ from machine cognition? What is the role of intuition and innate ideas?

“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a terrific book and it has aged well. It’s beautifully written and far more than a boring, pessimistic diatribe about modern life. I recommend it to everybody who wants to understand how the media we use to define the way we perceive ourselves and the world we live in.



Neil Postman Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death Part I

Amusing Ourselves to Death Part II

Neil Postman on Cyberspace

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 1 v 3

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 2 v 3

Marshall Mcluhan Full lecture: The medium is the message – 1977 part 3 v 3


A Humble Suggestion for the Inauguration Speech Of Joseph R. Biden Jr.

My fellow citizens, when we come together to inaugurate a president, we come together to confirm the power and the beauty of the idea our great republic is founded on.  We come together to celebrate the power of the promise made in the Declaration of Independence. The promise that everybody on this earth is created equal and endowed with the same inalienable rights. Not only is this the true creed of our time, the world has been looking to America to see this promise fulfilled for more than 200 years. It is this creed that binds this nation together. And from our shores, it has spread all across the globe.

We have received this precious gift from our founding fathers and we bear the responsibility to keep this promise alive. However, I will not allow my gratitude and my humility to cloud my vision. I will not shirk from the responsibility I shoulder when I accept this precious inheritance and I urge you, my fellow Americans, to do the same. Our founding fathers were merely human and they were flawed. They murdered Native Americans and stole their lands. They kept slaves and condemned innocent women, children and men to unspeakable misery for generations. We still feel the reverberations of their deeds today.

With that in our minds, we won’t judge the past by the standards of the present, but we also won’t allow our gratitude and the love for our country to disregard the unnecessary human suffering caused in our nation’s past. Only by daring to acknowledge our painful truths and continuing our journey to bridge the meaning of the words in the Declaration with the realities of our time, we can prove ourselves to be worthy heirs of the promise made at the founding of our republic.

I take my oath of office at a time of great danger for our nation. But I’m not just speaking of the pandemic, which has killed far too many of our citizens. I am certain that we will win this battle, once again guided by reason, competence and responsibility for the lives of all Americans.  I‘ m not speaking of Russia, China  or Iran, either. No other nation poses the greatest danger to the survival of our republic. What I’m speaking of is our unwillingness to see ourselves, our almost childlike inability to face the truth about who we are and what we have done.

Our founding fathers, for all their flaws, would be appalled by our conduct. We have become blind to our dark side. Our flag has become the wool over our eyes. We have become addicted to war and violence. We have all but forgotten our noble tradition of providing refuge to the poor and the persecuted. We have kept immigrants in cages and ripped their families apart.  We have turned our weapons against ourselves, brutally repressing protests demanding justice and persecuting journalists for uncovering war crimes.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the Middle East have perished and we are no closer to ending the war on terror.  On the contrary, our violent acts ensure that the children of our victims hate us with ever greater passion. We are spawning new terrorists every day. Our founding fathers fought heroically to free themselves from imperial rule. My fellow Americans, ask yourselves: how would our founding fathers judge us? What would they say to the American Empire?

We maintain military bases in every corner of the world. Our war machine is the most fearsome and expensive in the history of the world yet victory remains elusive. We profess the love for our soldiers, but these proclamations ring hollow. While we thank them for their service and glorify their sacrifice, we continue to send our sons and daughters to kill and be killed in senseless, unwinnable wars.

Are we a nation of deluded infants? Has it come to that?  I believe we are better than this. I believe we are worthy of the great inheritance before us. We can find the courage to see ourselves, we can face up to our truth: yes, we have built an empire.  We have built an empire in the belief that we needed to in defence of our freedom.

We have alienated many other nations because instead of shouldering the imperial responsibility and leading an empire of reason and civilization, we have allowed ourselves to fall far short of our ideals.  We have preached human rights, but we have supported violent coups and unjust regimes.  We were attacked and we didn’t seek justice. We sought revenge. We have abducted, tortured, and killed innocent people all over the world.  People created equal and endowed with the same inalienable rights.

The United States, like any other nation, has the right to act in its national interest and to safeguard its national security. However, our national interest no longer is the common good, the well-being of all Americans. Our national interest has become captured by a small, corrupt elite who serve nobody but their own monetary interest. Many in our elite have fallen prey to the oldest temptation: idolatry.

They have bowed down to idols and betrayed their better nature, they have chosen the route of self-enslavement. Their appetites have shaped themselves as gods and these false gods have taken command. It would be too easy to just blame the elites, however. Our whole culture has been infected by a slavish admiration of wealth and power. The money changers have taken the high seats in the temple of our civilization.

Today, we say ‘Enough is enough! We will bear it no longer!’ Today, we begin to restore that temple to the ancient truth, the ancient truth inscribed in the heart of every human being. We will relearn to discipline our appetites, we will build an economy that serves the people.  We will no longer be enslaved by our fears and our appetites.

We will no longer be enslaved by the illusion that we live to serve the economy. We will no longer slavishly admire the money hoarders while our brothers and sisters are begging in the streets.  Trump is gone, a new day has come. We will extend Medicare to every American. We will make sure that freedom for is more than empty word for the majority of Americans.  As long as we live in fear of becoming sick and ending up in bankruptcy, we’re not free.

Now that we have found the courage to face the dark side of our magnificent achievements, we are  finally ready to take on the challenge of climate change. The world has grown weary of American leadership and we have turned inwards, fighting futile culture wars. But America is back!  My administration will work tirelessly to regain the trust of the world’s nations.

This work will start here in America. To achieve our goals as individuals and as a society, we must move forward as a disciplined and loyal army willing to make sacrifices for the common good.  Without such discipline no progress is made and no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. Here at home, this larger good will take the form of the Green New Deal.

We will renew and rebuild our power stations, our airports, our highways, our schools, our roads and bridges.  Our greatest primary task is to put our national house in order and to put our people to work. In large part, we will accomplish this through direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war. We will turn our war machine into the greatest power for reform and renewal the world has ever seen. We will deploy the skill, excellence and bravery of our people to serve this higher purpose.

We will once again become the shining city upon a hill and set an example for the world. The time of wasting blood and treasure in senseless wars is over.  Now is not the time for the human family to fight each other. Now is the time for all us to stand together against a common enemy. The climate crisis has given us the greatest gift, if only we are willing to accept it. Our human hearts seek the bond and certainty of belonging to a group and all too often our groups have faced each other off in battle.

Let us face this greatest danger our species has ever encountered together as one human family. Let us stand together to preserve the fathomless beauty of our home in this vast, inhospitable universe. We have a larger battle to fight, it’s the battle for the survival of mankind and America is once again offering its leadership to the peoples of the world. In this dedication of my nation’s task, I humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one in our great human family.  May He guide me in the days to come.

If you are looking for somebody to help you say what needs to be said, in a style that fits the occasion and the audience, contact us under: