Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1985. The theories and concepts described in the book could easily apply to today’s world. Postman goes to great detail in his book about the development of public discourse (verbal and written communication) over the centuries. He explains how the development and evolution of communication over mankind’s history has changed at critical points. These critical points include the development of the alphabet, the development of the printing press, the development of the telegraph and the development of the television. Postman argues that American society in particular is in danger since it relies so much on television.
Postman’s book is divided into two parts. Part one documents the development of communication in Western civilization. The main course of his documentation is that the oral and printed methods of communication tend to be held in higher prestige because they take more “brain power” to learn and perfect. If a person wants to learn in an oral or printed communication based culture, he or she must learn the language, memorize customs, learn to read, learn to write, etc. Postman even goes so far to say that print communication controls your physical body as well — that a person’s body must remain at least semi-mobile in order to pay attention to what the words are trying to say.
In chapter 4, Postman details how the development and success of the printed word in Western civilization created what he calls “The Typographic Mind”, a mind set where a person from the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries could endure and pay attention to lengthy written tomes or lengthy speeches. Postman cites the 1858 U.S. presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. One debate lasted three hours while another in 1854 went seven. When I read this, I admit I was amazed. I had known that the debates were important for many reasons, but I had no idea that they had lasted this long. I can honestly say that I don’t think I could have lasted that long myself. The point that Postman is trying to make here however is that with mass electronic communication in the 20th century (television), American attention spans would never last even a fraction of that amount of time. Think of political debates on television today. To begin with the entire debate itself lasts only an hour at most. This includes commercial breaks. Candidates normally get five minutes to speak on an issue (sometimes only three) and the rebuttals are usually only just as long. So many of the recent televised presidential debates are successful if a candidate comes up with a great sound bite. Persons can cite the Lloyd Bentsen – Dan Quayle debate of 1992 for evidence of that.
Postman argues that there is an inherent danger in this. With important topics such as politics, religion and education being pared down to 15 second sound bites on the evening news, Americans do not get the whole picture. Many critical issues and concerns are left out and trivialized at times.
Part two of Postman’s book goes more into current examples of his theories. One chapter discusses how television mixes with religion, while another goes into more detail about politics and television and another goes into detail about education and television. These chapters provide more specific, concrete examples of the points Postman is trying to make and they do an excellent job of helping the reader better grasp his ideas. Younger readers may not understand some of the examples used in his book (there are many references to late 1970’s through mid 1980’s programs here) but it is extremely easy to apply Postman’s theories to television today. His ideas are just as relevant. To make my point — on the issue of attention span, I heard today that the National Hockey League is considering rules to help “speed up the game”. After game six of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs lasted until 1:30am Eastern Time, the NHL has decided to allow only four players on a team during overtime periods next season. The logic is that the games will be faster and decided faster in order to keep the fans interested. Similar ideas have been presented for the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and Major League Baseball. It seems to me that if your favorite sports team were playing for its life in the championship playoffs you would not mind the fact that the game lasts six hours, especially if you are on hand to see it in person. However it seems the television ratings for this year’s hockey playoffs and basketball playoffs were very low compared to years past and in part because of this, the leaders of these fine organizations are now willing to tamper with the basic rules that govern their games.
Another constant theme through Postman’s book is that George Orwell had it wrong about our society when he wrote 1984. Orwell prophesized that government forces would take over civilization and conquer and squash personal freedoms and rights. Postman argues that this viewpoint is incorrect. Postman states that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is more appropriate. Huxley saw a world where civilization would go gladly into that dark night, with a smile on its face. We would be entertained out of our personal freedoms and rights. Postman believes Huxley is more on target when a person considers what television has done to create such a reliance on itself in the 20th century.
I liked this book a lot. Again, some of the references were a bit dated but the concepts are still just as relevant today. It is always interesting to read a book that examines such a large part of society, be it television, music or computers. It is interesting because it gives you the chance to examine your own habits and traits. I personally have not given up television altogether. My profession as a teacher in the mass media dictates that I at least remain topical. I also use television mainly for news and sports information, although lately I have found that I do not really appreciate the current trends in both. There are too many graphics, not enough details and too many soft stories. Sports coverage lately seems to be the same. Too many graphics, too much advertising and not enough good announcers. I have been turning back to printed materials for news more often and am now turning back to the radio for sports broadcasts. About the only entertainment programming I watch on television anymore is The Simpsons, NYPD Blue and Days of Our Lives. That should tell you something right there