Now Reading: Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman


About 8 years ago my husband Brian and I went on our first “television fast.”  To steel our resolve, we carried the  25″ behemoth down 3 flights of stairs into our apartment storage space.   Though we already enforced moderate viewing habits, the experience of going tv-free was eye opening.  I felt more social.  I made more progress toward goals.  I cooked more.  Subtler things would delight and hold my attention.  And though I was perhaps slightly bored, I could literally feel the extra hour(s) in the day.

Three months later we moved into a long-term house sitting situation where we couldn’t get rid of the built-in television, and slid luxuriously (free cable!) back into our old watching habits; punctuated by the occasional “fast.”  But it was never as sustained or profound as that first time when we physically removed the entrancing appliance.

Six years later, in our new apartment, we have ditched the television.  What with laptops, netflix, internet streaming, smartphones; we barely notice its absence.  I find it curious that now that I am living tv-free, I am finally reading Neil Postman’s thought provoking look at the ascendancy of television culture “Amusing Ourselves To Death” (1985).  Though dated in some superficial ways; our rapidly evolving technologies have far from rendered this book’s ideas obsolete.  Neil Postman died in 2003, but as his son Andrew says in a interview:

“He asked such good questions that they can be asked of non-television things.  His questions can be asked about all technologies and media.  What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If they’re not worth it, yet we still can’t stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because that’s just how we’re wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?”

One professor teaches the book in conjunction with an “e-media” fast for her students–no email, no phone, no internet, etc for 24 hours.  If they slip up, they have to start the 24 hours over again.

“The papers I get back are amazing,” says the professor. “They have titles like ‘The Worst Day of My Life’ or ‘The Best Experience I Ever Had,’ always extreme. I thought I was going to die, they’ll write. I went to turn on the TV but if I did I realized, my God, I’d have to start all over again. Each student has his or her own weakness – for some it’s TV, some the cell phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they haven’t done in years.  They actually walk down the street to visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One wrote, I thought to do things I hadn’t thought to do ever. The experience changes them. Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course I take them through the classics – from Plato and Aristotle through today – and years later when former students write or call to say hello the thing they remember is the media fast.”

By the age of 65, the average American will have spent 12 years of their lives in front of the television. Take a moment to read Postman’s chilling foreward to “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and to consider how a ceaseless stream of entertainment may affect us.

We were keeping our eye on 1984.  When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves.  The roots of liberal democracy had held.  Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. 

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, 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.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

-Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

Interview excerpts in this post are from the archive.  Thanks to David Schelzel for the reading recommendation, and thank YOU for reading the Wednesday Post!


3 responses to “Now Reading: Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman

  1. “There’s nothing on it worthwhile, and we’re not going to watch it in this household, and I don’t want it in your intellectual diet.” — Philo T. Farnsworth [the inventor of TV] to his son Kent, regarding television

    “I do not mean that the trivialization of public information is all accomplished on television. I mean that television is the paradigm for our conception of public information. As the printing press did in an earlier time, television has achieved the power to define the form in which news must come, and it has also defined how we shall respond to it. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror television.” – Postman (1985), Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 110.

    “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” – Postman (1985), Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 87.

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