Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman (1985)


Postman’s must-read cultural critique is still impressively timely 30 years later, despite coming out before the popularization of personal computers. Actually, most of what Postman has to say about the degradation of discourse by television can also be applied to the interwebs.

I haven’t read other reviews yet, but I can’t really imagine anyone can refute what Postman is saying here. TV has coopted our culture and it has turned everything into entertainment, most of it mindless. And it has has supplanted real, relevant information with disinformation, and it has converted all political discourse into a farce. Disagree, I dare you.

The above paragraph makes this a must-read — not only is it irrefutable, but it’s hugely important for how we understand our culture and the world. Most of us don’t even know the enemy we’re up against, and if we want to reclaim the meaning in our lives, this book is an excellent place to start.

Probably interesting to me only, given my recent reading, is that part of Postman’s analysis anticipates Leonard Shlain’s interesting The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (see my review). Shlain says, in his tiresome way, that the act of literacy fundamentally realigns the brain in ways that emphasize abstract, masculine traits, promoting misogyny in the bargain. Postman doesn’t go that far, but he does mention how radical the act of reading was to a hitherto oral people.

The only thing I didn’t like here was Postman’s insistence on opposing Orwell and Huxley and then siding with the latter. Orwell’s my main man, so I’m naturally going to bristle with somebody going on endlessly about how wrong he was.

But seriously, maybe I’m one of the few who doesn’t understand why the two prognosticators have to be mutually exclusive. Postman says TV is our soma and I can dig it, and I agree that Huxley’s wariness of technology was prescient. There’s also the fact, if you wanna talk soma, that North Americans take more prescription drugs than any other people in the world.

But Postman also acknowledges the disinformation that TV fosters while ignoring 1984‘s Ministry of Information. Neither can one deny the existence of Orwell’s doublespeak, especially in political discourse (Helloooooooooo Patriot Act that allows my country to spy on me!). And while Postman acknowledged the police states in communist countries, he never allowed for the possibility that it might come to pass in the U.S. Um, yeah, Ed Snowden and Mr. Droney might disagree with him there.

Really what it comes down to is that of course we are not currently living in 1984. But there are definitely subtle parallels, and it irks me that Postman felt he had to throw Orwell (a much more gifted writer and humane thinker, BTW, than Huxley) under the bus in order to make his point.

Otherwise, yeah everyone should read this now. It’s not even 200 pages so it won’t take you almost any time. No excuses!



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