Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death
The primary thrust of this book is that television has degraded our mode of public discourse. Our news, politics, education, and even religion are delivered to us primarily through television, where they were once delivered via the written word. This transformation of medium is not irrelevant: just as poetry doesn’t survive fully intact when translated from one language to another, likewise ideas do not survive translation of medium.
This book was written in 1986. What foresight. If Postman was worried about the effects that television was having on public discourse, he would have been scared silly to see how much of our dialog is held online on Facebook and Twitter, where all ideas are compressed into 140 to 280 characters and algorithms designed to optimize for consumer engagement determine what rises to prominence and what does not. Thus rational thought is drowned out—stamped out—by a deluge of content that is shallow, simplistic, and sensational.
What follows are my notes that I wrote as I read the book, organized by chapter. Do note that these notes are not meant to stand on their own; if you have not read the book, they will likely seem disjoint.
Typographic America (p. 30)
The typographical America read a lot.
The telegraph commoditized information: news was suddenly taken out of context and held as valuable per se. The question: if something is not relevant to my actions, can it still be valuable?
The Peek-a-Boo World (p.64)
p. 69: Is the problem then in unidirectional means of communication? We can’t reply and can’t really engage. We become passive and the signal gets lost in the noise.
Now… This (p. 99)
The idea here seems to be this: television has become the paradigm of information transmittal. Because it strips things of context and things are to be understood by themselves, contradictions fade. Magazines follow suit: entertainment is news, and news must be entertaining.
Shuffle Off to Bethlehem (p. 114)
p. 117: Prose survives translation between languages, whereas poetry does not survive. Likewise, ideas do not survive changes in medium unchanged. Television (and now mediums like Twitter, Instagram, etc.) do great violence to ideas.
p. 121: TV demands that what what be presented be easy. Elder Maxwell’s talks are nice to watch, but move far too quickly and are way more intricate than can be comfortably comprehended. There is some place for easy: beginners to faith will have difficulty appreciating everything about Elder Maxwell.
Reach Out and Elect Someone (p. 125)
p. 128: Commercials are less about the character of the product and mare more about the character of the consumer.
Reach out and Elect Someone (p. 126)
Capitalism works when the buyer and producer can both know what is good and what is valuable. In sports, there are rules and standards that cannot be muffled over; a basketball player who misses all his free throws cannot weasel his way into being considered a “good player”.
Yet the virtues exposed by television are how entertaining something is. It becomes “How good can a president look?” rather than “is this a good man?” We see that quite strongly today.
As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men always make their gods in their own image. But to this, television politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.
Is this what gets Trump supporters so fanatic—to the point where they cannot see his contradictions? What image does he portray that they wish they had?
One thing he projects is a disregard for the status quo. He’s also fiercely tribal—people want an enemy they can scapegoat, and he leads the charge against everyone and everything. People then feel like if they’re on his team, they’re winning. What they think they’re winning, I have no idea. But they seem to think that they are winning something.
That’s kind of like a game show: a meaningless contest of luck, strength, trivia recall, etc. which is filmed in a futuristic studio. Everything is automatic and accompanied by jazzy music and flashing lights. Game shows are strange things.
p. 141: Television’s Censorship: television doesn’t ban books—it displaces them, which is just as bad. I’ve wished for a super power—not to be invisible, but that no one would be able to focus their attention on me and pay attention to what I am doing. It would be far easier to get away with stuff if no one noticed you than it would be if you were merely invisible: floating objects catch people’s attention rather quickly!
p. 141: Collateral learning: what do you learn outside of the content of the lesson? Helping students develop the right attitudes towards learning is important and tricky.
Teaching as an Amusing Activity (p. 142)
p. 145: Television makes new conceptions of knowledge and how it is acquired. The Internet has compounded this a thousand fold: google it, tweet it, stream it on-demand, etc.