Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

This book should be read by anyone who has used, is using, or intends to use the internet. Remarkably prescient and an indispensable volume for understanding our current media landscape.

"Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce 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." (Page 4)

The medium isn't the message, it's the metaphor

Postman sets out to develop the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, famous for his assertion that "the medium is the message." Namely, as McLuhan had argued, "Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication."

Postman goes further: the medium isn't just the message but rather it is the metaphor. That is, the media we use have a way of organising and transforming the ways we think to begin with.

"Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility." (Page 11)

He presents the humble clock as an example. A clock is a medium for understanding the passage of time, and its products are seconds, minutes, and hours. Our minds are organised by this so that it creates a transformation in our way of thinking about time (something that we used to think of as continuous rather than discrete). This transformation comes from the medium in the form of a metaphor, which is as a way of understanding something else. Time isn't actually broken into these units of time, after all: this is a metaphor we have created, the adoption of which changes how we think about time entirely.

Rather than being just a message, the medium-as-metaphor is the thing that creates the content.

"We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as "it" is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture." (Page 17)

The type of a given media has an effect on whether we accept it as true, or as real knowledge.

"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" (Page 26)

The content of TV isn't necessarily the problem. Most of it is junk, yes, and that's what it's best at (and there's no real problem with that). It's the serious stuff we should worry about, Postman argues. Namely that there are negative epistemic consequences. New mediums change the quality of discourse itself, and a TV-based epistemic environment is much worse than what's possible in print.

"As typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines." (Page 34)

A really core idea that Postman hammers home: "The form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be."

The age of exposition

""When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks and Michael Jackson. "I can give you no conception of my welcome," Dickens wrote to a friend. "There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited upon by public bodies of all kinds."" (Page 46)

When Thomas Paine published Common Sense in 1776 it was a "superbowl level" event in scale. Postman is keen to stress the people of eighteenth-century New England were voracious readers because they were living in what he calls the age of typography. Paine published four hundred thousand copies in that first year which, for a population of three million, is huge. He would have had to have sold twenty-four million copies [in 1985] to do as well.

In terms of media, printed matter was all that was available. This had its effect on political discourse which was itself structured around the medium of typography. Political debates would be conducted with bookish sincerity and run to considerable length over many, many hours. They couldn't have been more different to the "TV debates" of today.

"The speakers had little to offer, and audiences little to expect, but language. And the language that was offered was clearly modeled on the style of the written word." (Page 56)
"Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?" (Page 53)

Discourse centered around language and prose, argues Postman, tends to be more serious. Because language carries meaning, it demands to be understood. The discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries contained more language, therefore more meaning, therefore making it more serious. The dominant mode was understanding and rationality, not passion.

"Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigours of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one's thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence." (Page 58)

"To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and over-generalizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another." (Page 59)

Postman calls this the age of exposition (defined as "a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory") because exposition is the primary mode of thought, method of learning, and means of expression.

The turn of the twentieth century is when the move away from the typographic epistemic environment started to accelerate. However, the slow journey towards this acceleration that happened before this point is worth considering, too.


"Telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make "one neighbourhood of the whole country." It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse." (Page 75)

Samuel Morse developed the telegraph between 1832 and 1835. The immediacy of the communication allowed, according to Postman, the first major attack on typography by increasing the irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence of information.

"Telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a "thing" that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning" (Page 76)

This is when we get the emergence of penny newspapers, and the sensationalising of events—convenient for the early telegraph. Quality started to become less important, and the focus became more about quantity, speed, and distance.

"The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded." (Page 78)

The ratio between information received and the amount of action one can take in response to that information grew enormous. Postman argues that, before, most information received could be acted upon—but what of news from a thousand miles away? What can really be done about that? In short, the only thing we can do is "create more news."

"But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action." (Page 79)

Daguerre was also at work around this time, inventing the prototype of photography. Where the word was an idea, the photo was an object that forced much of the exposition into the background. Seeing is believing, not just reading.

"The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself." (Page 86)

"Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child's game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining." (Page 89)

A brief aside on the internet

This book was published in 1985, well before the internet was around. But there’s an interesting quote from the first section of the book that doesn’t quite fit well with the others here but bears looking at:

"Television is the command centre in subtler ways as well. Our use of other media, for example, is largely orchestrated by television. Through it we learn what telephone system to use, what movies to see, what books, records and magazines to buy, what radio programmes to listen to. Television arranges our communications environment for us in ways that no other medium has the power to do." (Page 90)

My immediate thought on reading this is how it works even better for the internet which has superseded television's role as Postman describes it. We can give it a quick rewrite:

"The internet is the command centre in subtler ways as well. Our use of other media, for example, is largely orchestrated by the internet. Through it we learn what telephone system to use, what movies to see, what books, records and magazines to buy, what radio programmes to listen to, and what television to watch. The internet arranges our communications environment for us in ways that no other medium has the power to do."

The age of show business

"Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth." (Page 98)

Postman uses this moment to highlight an important distinction:

  • Technology = the machine, or the hardware and systems
  • Medium = the social and intellectual environment the technology creates

It's naive, Postman argues, to think that any technology is entirely neutral. Each has its own agenda. The agenda of television is complete entertainment, giving the viewer precisely what they want at all times.

"But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience." (Page 101)

It's not that we are merely shown entertainment but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining. It is there for our amusement and pleasure—nothing else!—because television encompasses all forms of discourse available. Television-as-metaphor means it becomes the way in which we lead our lives, seeking to entertain rather than to engage with and exchange new and interesting ideas.

Postman cites "Now...this" as a phrase that encapsulates the entertainment of news media in particular. Typically used by the news anchor who ends one piece and transitions to the other, e.g. after the end of a piece about war he'll literally say "Now... this next story" and move onto something completely unrelated and irrelevant (something well parodied in Anchorman). There is total irrelevance between different pieces of content.

"Television provides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) 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 rigours of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter." (Page 118)

If a book were interrupted as often as a news show with irrelevant other material then you would not continue to read it. It would be totally pointless. But we allow it with the medium of television because that is the metaphor of the medium.

Postman makes the case that all news TV is, in a way, disinformation. It's not incorrect or inaccurate (i.e. misinformation), but it leads people away from actually knowing something while giving us the illusion that we do, in fact, know more.

An incoherent, fragmentary world

The fundamental assumption with television is discontinuity, not coherence. We are living in a fragmentary world. Not every form of content works in every medium, and the translation of it only works up to a point. Things are inevitably lost and/or changed in the process.

"Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence." (Page 136)

You can make a thing entertaining, but in doing so do you destroy some innate quality that was once fundamental to what it was?

Image politics

Postman argues that the influence of television has turned politics into a game of image rather than ideas, above all else. He argues that President Truman was no celebrity and that the common man on the street wouldn't have recognised him, but rather he was well known.

"A person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to." (Page 152)

By the 1980s, he argues that politicians are more like celebrities. He gives a list of examples which I'll split into bullet points here:

  • "Vice-presidential candidate William Miller did a commercial for American Express.
  • So did the star of the Watergate Hearings, Senator Sam Ervin.
  • Former President Gerald Ford joined with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for brief roles on "Dynasty."
  • Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis appeared on "St. Elsewhere."
  • Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill did a stint on "Cheers."
  • Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, George McGovern and Mayor Edward Koch hosted "Saturday Night Live."
  • Koch also played the role of a fight manager in a made-for-television movie starring James Cagney.
  • Mrs. Nancy Reagan appeared on "Diff'rent Strokes."" (Page 154)

Image politics is, Postman argues, about creating a mirror image of the voter. You choose to vote for the person who most closely mirrors you and your own values, rather than the policies and principles they espouse. It's a psychology of reflection.

He also makes the case that the banning or burning of books is largely irrelevant because the book can easily be sought anyway. Worse is that books are displaced by television. A child cannot read any book at all if they are forever distracted by the TV.

What's more, education is hindered, not helped, by making it more entertaining. The only real way to improve education, he argues, is for the pupil to be more interested in the subject matter.

A Huxleyan warning

"There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first-the Orwellian-culture becomes a prison. In the second-the Huxleyan-culture becomes a burlesque." (Page 180)

Distraction by trivia likely leads, Postman argues, to cultural death. How do we defend against such a thing when it appears to be so benign? The problem is that technology is ideology:

"We have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement." (Page 183)

How should we get out of this predicament, then? Postman is not optimistic. Apart from the vain hope that people might choose to watch less TV, he advocates for epistemic teaching in schools so that children can at least understand how media influences what they know. But he doesn't think that's likely to happen.

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