Book Summaries Philosophy

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary 1Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary 2

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a book about epistemology – and how it is actively being changed by new forms of media. Neil Postman makes a powerful argument about the importance of the written word, about how by its nature, it is more conducive to a true understanding of the world, whereas other forms of media, that rely on pictures, are a poor substitute. Worse than that, they have created a culture that not only has forgotten about the past, is misinformed, and disillusioned, but one that is happy to be in this state.

Postman points out that Huxley’s vision in Brave New World has come true, and this was in 1985. We may fairly say that things have not moved too far in the opposite direction as of 2019.

Below are links to detailed chapter summaries.

Chapter 1: The Medium is the Message

The more we use symbols, the more our physical reality diminishes.

Instead of dealing with things directly, man has entered into a state of constant conversation with himself. He is so enveloped in linguistic forms, artistic images, and mythical symbols that he cannot see or know anything without the interposition of an artificial medium.

Chapter 2: The Media as Epistemology

In this chapter, Postman explain the role of media as a means of understanding the world. He first reminds us that proverbs and sayings were not just occasional devices in oral cultures, as Walter Ong points out, “They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them.”

Chapter 3: Typographic America

The Bible was the central reading matter in all households – Protestants shared Luther’s belief that printing was “God’s highest and extremest act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”

Chapter 4: The Peekaboo World

Newspapers came to depend not on the quality or usefulness of their news, but on how much and at what speed they provided it. James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content in the first week of 1848.

Chapter 5: The Age of Show Business

The supra-ideology for all television conversation is entertainment. No matter what is depicted, the main presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. When news shows provide us with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the news anchors to “join them tomorrow.”

Chapter 7: Now… This

Robert MacNeil, the executive editor and co-anchor of he “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour”, writes that the idea is “to keep everything briefnot to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required … to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”

Chapter 9: Reach out to elect someone

To understand Postman’s point here, it is useful to remember that capitalism, like science and democracy, came from the Enlightenment. Its principal theorists believed that both buyers and sellers were mature enough, well informed and reasonable to conduct transactions that were mutually beneficial. If greed fuelled the capitalistic engine, rationality was the driver.

Chapter 10: Teaching as an amusing activity

Reading books and watching television differ completely in what they imply about learning. America is a case in point of what can be thought of as the third great crisis in Western education. The first was in fifth century B.C, when Athens transformed from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture.

Chapter 11: The Huxleyan Warning

Orwell was not the first to tell us about the dangers of tyranny to the spirit, but what is remarkable about his work is that it makes no difference if our wardens are inspired by left or right-wing ideologies.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death Summary 3

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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