Review: Neil Postman's 'Amusing Ourselves to Death'

– Posted January 23, 2016 the refsmmat report · a blog at

Amusing Ourselves to Death is interesting both for its arguments and the realization that things have gotten much, much worse since it was published in 1985. The key to Postman’s argument is that the medium affects the message: yes, you can say the same thing on TV as you would in print, but you probably won’t. To illustrate this, Postman begins by describing typographic America: America in the 1800s, before the invention of photography or the telegraph, when nearly every aspect of public discourse occurred in print. Print is a great format for argumentation—for laying out logical propositions and supporting evidence—because it is susceptible to careful analysis: arguments laid in front of you on a page can be dissected and examined any way you want.

Discourse not in print, like the many popular public lectures and speeches, was heavily inspired by print—public speakers used language and syntax that very much sounds like it was written, with complex multiclause sentences and subtle arguments.1 People were expected to carefully listen to hours of public debates and lectures. The inherent biases of print shaped the rest of our culture.

Then came the telegraph and the explosion of irrelevance. Suddenly we were deluged with information which, we claimed, stood on its own merits—that is, information with no inherent use except as information. What are we to do about the latest Middle East conflict or political dispute? Or the price of beans in New Brunswick? We can vote, but voting is a blunt instrument, and our only other option is, essentially, to answer opinion polls and simply become more news. Worse, rapid-fire media like radio and television are intrinsically unsuitable for detailed exposition and argument, and so they now aim to amuse, not to inform. Postman puts this change pithily:

“We might even say that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.”

I can see the point here. Read the New York Times (or, hell, the Daily Mail) every day for a week and you’ll find very little you can actually act upon. Maybe something that will influence how you vote,2 maybe a book or product you want to buy, but most of the news items are irrelevant. Since 1985, things have gotten worse: the Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, and most of online media are aimed at brief moments of amusement (through listicles and animated GIFs), so much so that long-form articles are rare enough to have their own website curating them. We no longer carefully examine political discourse, and politicians know better than to attempt using sophisticated and subtle arguments in TV debates where they have only 30 seconds to provide a soundbite.

The Internet would horrify Postman. Now, not only do we demand that everything amuse us, we leave if it fails to amuse us within two or three seconds. Slow page load? Back! Reddit is the epitome of this: the default front page is people voting on what amuses them most. Comment threads are either puns (rapid-fire amusement) or funny stories, a few paragraphs at most. Political discourse is reduced to one-line expressions of outrage or disbelief. Serious discussion cannot survive unless determined moderators ruthlessly delete amusing posts.3

In short, we’re way past the Kodak moment. We live in search of the tweetable moment.

This much is easy to see. But: of all the long-form writing and arguments the so-called typographic Americans were digesting, what fraction was relevant? What fraction were actually informative? Were they reading for recreation, or were they reading about issues that mattered to them? Postman ignores this question entirely. Perhaps they were all reading about getting the best soybean crop or reading about politics and vigorously participating in the local city council, but I have no idea what people did on average, and it’s not clear that all the careful analysis amounted to anything. Just how rosy is Postman’s view of the 1800s?

I also wonder about quantitative support for Postman’s argument. As far as I know, books are selling more than ever, and I recall a recent article suggesting that fiction has been getting longer and longer over the years. If this is what we’d expect given Postman’s hypothesis? Or are the books less complex, more padded, despite the increased length? I don’t know how you’d evaluate that, though modern popular nonfiction does often seem content-free.

More broadly, there’s a possible quantitative counter-argument to Postman: in “typographic America”, print was the dominant medium, but it was also small. There wasn’t anything like the volume of publishing we see today, with everything from big publishing houses down to self-published authors and random people with blogs. More people participate in typographic media than ever before. It may be a smaller fraction of overall media consumption than it used to be, drowned in hours of Netflix and HBO, but in absolute terms it is enormously larger than it was in the 1800s. Of course, television and the GIF side of the Internet are crushingly larger, and they dictate popular culture and views. Donald Trump exists because he doesn’t need a coherent argument, just fabulous sound bites. Politics, news, and business are driven by non-typographic media. It doesn’t matter how large print is—it has lost the battle.

On an unrelated note,4 I also wonder how Postman would react to the recent emergence of TV dramas with long, complicated plots spread over entire seasons. They are, of course, still intended to amuse instead of inform, but they expect more than complete passivity from their viewers, who are expected to keep track of legions of characters and plot details over weeks or months. I suppose this is the medium shaping the message again: Netflix means a binge-watcher can down an entire season in an afternoon, so instead of four hours of unrelated programs, he can get four or five hours of a single continuous plot. Or, in other words, long story arcs became popular as soon as it was possible to time-shift them with DVRs, Netflix, and DVD boxed sets.

Overall, I enjoyed Amusing Ourselves to Death, and it’s a fascinating subject to think about.5 I just wish Postman were around to update the book to the modern era, and that he could marshal more evidence to his positions.

  1. I assume this is why dialogue in old novels always seems so improbable—nobody talks in long convoluted sentences anymore. They probably don’t even know how to properly pronounce punctuation.

  2. That’s optimistic. Normally we just see things we use to justify the voting decisions we’ve already made.

  3. Perhaps as a reaction to reddit, Hacker News has a strong social taboo against puns and jokes, which are instantly downvoted. Instead, its users avoid serious discussion with middlebrow dismissals and pointless arguments about pointless details.

  4. Postman’s most hated feature of modern media is its tendency to say “Now, this”—to drop one subject after thirty seconds of consideration and move to something completely different, tacitly admitting that you won’t pay attention unless they keep you amused with new things. This paragraph hence feels transgressive.

  5. He says, in between checking Twitter, Facebook, and Hacker News for updates. Apparently it didn’t stick.