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Amusing Ourselves to Death Book Summary – Love Your Work, Episode 252
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.
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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.
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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 television you need many moving pictures, changing every fraction of a second. Whatever content is put on television, it needs to be adapted to these demands.
Internet media is images
Extend that thinking to Instagram or YouTube. For your media to get noticed, you need eye-catching images. If it’s video, you need quick cuts, graphics, and music. Even where there are words, words are used as if they were images. Headlines are too short to carry much content, but are also misleading and hyperbolic.
Our media shapes how we decide what is true
Our media is how we share ideas. It’s how we have discussions about what is important. To decide what is important, we need to compare one fact to another. But to compare facts, we also need to agree upon what is true.
The media is the metaphor
Postman revises Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement, “the medium is the message.” As Postman points out, a message says something directly. It makes a concrete statement that can be agreed or disagreed with – a proposition.
Media based around images is not sending messages that make concrete statements. So, Postman says “the medium is the metaphor.” Today’s media merely makes suggestions. By not making concrete statements, it’s open to interpretation.
You may have heard various news stories referred to as “Rorschach tests.” In an actual Rorschach test, you look at something ambiguous – an ink blot – and that ambiguous thing serves as a metaphor for some idea. It makes you think of something. Our media, in being image-based instead of text-based, is ambiguous. It serves as a metaphor that’s open to interpretation.
Pay attention the next time you see a news headline about a politician who said something. It will be accompanied by an image of that politician. Is that image actually of the moment that person said that thing? Usually not (not that it matters). It’s often not even from the same event. Instead, you’ll see an expression on the politician’s face. Whether it’s carefully chosen for the emotion it conveys, or chosen based upon click-through rate, it ascribes ambiguous meaning to the words in the headline. It’s a metaphor. And those who agree or don’t agree with what the politician said – or who merely identify or don’t identify with that politician’s party – will derive different meanings from that headline/image combination.
Images cannot express the truth
Here’s where our image-based culture becomes a problem. When our media is not making concrete statements that can be agreed or disagreed with, we can no longer distinguish fact from fiction. Our media is the basis of our – fancy word here – epistemology: How we decide what is true.
What’s even more dangerous about images is that we think “seeing is believing.” If we see an image or a video of an incident, we take what we’ve seen – or rather how we’ve interpreted what we’ve seen – as the truth. But it’s open to interpretation. It’s a Rorschach test. The medium is the metaphor.
I’m always reminded of this when I see campaigns where models share pre-Photoshop images of their bodies. It’s great we’re becoming aware of how images are manipulated, but at the root of this is one problem: Even the raw image is not the truth. No image is an objective representation of reality. It’s a picture, made by a camera. Three dimensions broken down into two. The fact that few seem to recognize this is troubling.
The written word can express the truth
As Postman argues, the written word – unlike images – can better express the truth. When you read long-form text, you follow a line of thought. You consume it in isolation, and have the mental resources available to consider whether the author is overgeneralizing, abusing logic, or exploiting biases. You can review things that are confusing, or notice contradictions.
Postman recognizes that words are not infallible. There were newspapers in the 1830’s, such as New York’s Sun and Herald that mostly covered sensational events about crime and sex. But there were two major turning points in how we used the written word.
One was the invention of the electric telegraph. Once information could be conveyed around the world within seconds, information became a commodity to be sold, and thus manufactured. The first American newspaper was three pages long and monthly. Our 24-hour news cycle is manufactured information.
Another major turning point was when advertising ceased to be used to convey information. Instead of making statements that could be confirmed or refuted, advertisers started using – along with images such as babies in high chairs – slogans, or “nonpropositional” language. Words as images, if you will.
Maybe the question about the model in the ad shouldn’t be about whether she or he is Photoshopped, but rather why they’re in the ad at all? The models in ads, Photoshopped or not, are not there to present factual statements – they are there to make nonpropositional statements. They are there to serve as metaphors.
Our world is not “Orwellian.” It’s “Huxleyan.”
When people worry about the quality of information in our media landscape, people often describe it as “Orwellian.” What they’re suggesting is that our media is like that of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian power controls information through tactics such as eliminating words from language, rewriting history, and distributing disinformation. By controlling information, this totalitarian power controls the people.
But Postman says our world is not Orwellian. Rather, it’s “Huxleyan.” In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the people aren’t so much oppressed by the government’s control of information. Instead, they’re oppressed by their own addiction to entertainment. If you haven’t read Brave New World, it’s worth reading. A genetically-engineered society of various castes – all grown in labs, with no mothers, fathers, or family – spends most of its time flying in helicopters to mini-golf courses, having sex with one another, and escaping reality by taking a drug called “soma.” (If you’ve ever heard the Strokes’ song, “Soma,” you know based upon the lyrics “soma is what they would take when hard times opened their eyes.”) The society presented in Brave New World is a slightly less idiotic form of the society presented in Mike Judge’s movie, Idiocracy.
Entertainment itself is not dangerous – if you know it’s entertainment
Postman isn’t an old man telling the kids to get off his lawn – though he may sound like it sometimes. He’s not trying to say there should be no television at all. What he’s saying is the characteristics of the medium of television are such that everything on it has to be presented as entertainment.
Think about the television news. Presumably, we watch the news for information – to be informed and make rational decisions about our lives and our society. But why do news programs have a theme song? It plays when it opens, it plays when it closes, it plays before and after commercial breaks. They play similar music when presenting “breaking news.” Music creates a mood. The only reason there could be for a news show to have music – not to mention the cool graphics – is because a news show is entertainment.
“Now … this”
The TV news is a good analogy for Postman’s view of our world – which is fitting since he sees the media landscape as shaping discourse. On television news, you might see coverage of a horrific bus crash. You see aerial footage of the wreckage, as the newscaster tells you fifteen people met their fiery demise. That takes a few seconds, then the newscaster says, “Now … this.” And we cut to the five day forecast.
“Now … this,” sums up the 1985 media landscape for Postman. Instead of long expanses of text that make cohesive arguments, it’s one image, then another image, with no connection between the two. “Now … this.” When our media does not convey messages, but instead only ambiguous metaphors, and when the statements made by those metaphors aren’t connected, there’s no hope for reason.
The “peek-a-boo” world
Postman also calls it the “peek-a-boo” world, like a child’s game of peek-a-boo. One event after another pops into view for a moment, then vanishes. It’s entertaining, but it asks nothing of us.
Referring again to the world as Huxleyian rather than Orwellian, Postman says:
there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.
People might say that lies today are indeed defined as truth. But remember, the media is the metaphor. What is a lie to one person is somehow interpreted as the truth to another. There’s no foundation upon which to distinguish lies from the truth because, per Postman’s thesis, our discourse has devolved into nonsense.
The dominant medium shapes all other media
You might have caught a contradiction in this summary: The Lincoln/Douglas debate was spoken word, not written words. Isn’t Postman’s argument that America was founded as a highly-literate society? What’s impressive about the Lincoln/Douglas debates isn’t just the attention span it demonstrated in the populace, but also the complexity of the sentences that audience was able to follow.
As I mentioned in my Understanding Media summary, I change the way I write based upon how it will sound on the podcast. I don’t think of it as “dumbing down” – but I recognize that our media landscape is predominantly images and audio, and that people listen in distracting environments. The dominant form of media shapes the rest of the media.
America before images only had words
As Postman illustrates the Lincoln/Douglas debate, he argues that since the audience consumed mostly long-form written media, they were able to understand extremely complex language. For example, one sentence Lincoln said: “It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.” Huh?
Keep in mind, at the time of these debates in the 1850’s – aside from live events such as this one – there was only printed stuff. Not only were there no smartphones nor television nor true crime podcasts, there was no radio, no movies, and there weren’t even photographs!
People on the street wouldn’t have recognized James Madison
Imagine this striking observation by Postman: Each of the first fifteen U.S. presidents could have walked down the street, and the average person wouldn’t have recognized them. Our leaders were only known for their words, not for their appearance. Contrast that to today’s political landscape, where our politicians have to look the right way in the television debates. They also better be able to dish out sick burns on Twitter.
A final quote from Postman:
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.
There’s your Amusing Ourselves to Death summary
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1985. This – alongside Understanding Media, which I talked about on episode 248 – is one of the best media studies books, and is more relevant than ever. I hope you enjoyed this summary.
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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »
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