Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes

 Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes

Neil Postman begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by presenting the philosophies of writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (Foreword), noting that the fear of Orwell’s predicted world in 1984 has been overshadowed by Huxley’s prophecy from Brave New World being far more worrying. Postman argues that this prophecy has come to pass in America in the late 20th century. 

In Chapter 1 (Part 1), he introduces the idea that every medium stands for a metaphor of culture. In Part 1, Chapter 2, Postman explains how media became our epistemology, dictating how we came to know things and make sense of the world. Chapter 3 describes colonial America as a highly literate environment devoted to the printed word from its very founding; Chapter 4 discusses the effect print culture had on American people, as it reached an apex in the 19th century. Postman calls this period the Age of Typography. However, its days were numbered when the end of the century brought telegraphy and photography. The former divorced communication from transportation, while the latter shifted focus from word to image. Together, these changes would transform American culture through irrelevant information, as described in Chapter 5.  Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes

Part 2 examines what Postman calls the Age of Show Business, an era focused on the image—especially the technology of television. Chapter 6 reviews how television has taken over all aspects of American society, not just entertainment. The danger of this is that television makes everything in its own image, turning all our institutions into mere amusement. In Chapters 7-10, Postman shows how television has transformed the news, religion, politics, and education. In each example, he makes the case that as a technology, television cannot simply be used as another tool within an existing framework. As with all technologies, it changes the nature of each area of society it touches. In essence, television “dumbs things down”—commodifying complex ideas and not allowing them to develop through exposition, as is the model of advertising. In the final chapter, Postman expands on what he briefly refers to in the Foreword, discussing the two kinds of threats to society—those described by writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. He argues that television follows the Huxleyan model, and at this point in time, there’s nothing we can do about it but attempt to teach people how to interrogate media so they are at least aware of how they work.

The book’s main themes are Television’s Impact on Society, the Role of Media in Communication and Epistemology, and the Golden Age of Typography.

Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes



 Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes The main theme of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is how television has transformed every aspect of American society in the latter half of the 20th century. Part 2 of the book examines what Postman calls the Age of Show Business, characterized by instant information and images, which television has come to dominate. Over several chapters, he analyzes television’s influence on important forms of public discourse such as the news, religion, politics, and education—in his view, degrading each and every one.

In Part 1, Chapter 2, Postman makes it clear that he “appreciate[s] junk as much as the next fellow” (16). Television has its purpose, and he’s not trying to abolish it as a medium. His problem with it is that it now controls our interpretation of all aspects of society, no longer consigned to the realm of entertainment, which it is best suited for. Because of this, television imposes its entertaining nature on everything that makes use of it, including the most important institutions in our culture. After demonstrating how media always create a bias toward specific kinds of information, Postman examines the news, religion, politics, and education in modern America, noting how television has changed them.

Postman argues that television’s effect is overwhelmingly negative. The preceding era focused on print media (The Age of Exposition), which was well suited to the important areas of public discourse because of its emphasis on exposition. This involves facts building upon each other to make arguments based on logic and hierarchical structure, which is necessary for deep, serious thoughts. Television’s bias negates exposition, as people are predisposed to being amused. Thus, any use of television requires “dumbing down” ideas and adding a “fun factor”. Religion is secularized and dramatized, while politics focus on attractive faces and sound bites. In short, everything becomes advertising, which is not conducive to advanced civilization.

Postman has no answers for television’s effect, as there’s no going back to the 19th century to regain the glory of the Age of Exposition. However, his suggestion is to use schools, long the preferred choice for addressing society’s problems, to educate young people about television’s effects. This will not fix the problem, but at least people will be aware of how technology works and understand television’s influence on them. Discussion and investigation are the collective first step toward people controlling television rather than being controlled by it.


While the role of television in American society is Postman’s main theme, he also describes the impact all media have on our forms of communication and epistemology: Media “classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like” (10).  Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes , As tools for communication, media create a certain environment to exchange information and ideas. Postman argues that the tool itself shapes whatever is being conveyed through it. Hence his example that smoke signals cannot support philosophical concepts; the medium of smoke signals is too limited for such abstract thought. Print based on alphabets, however, are well suited to philosophy. This is Postman’s take on professor and media critic Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message.” Postman prefers to use “metaphor” to “message” because it more accurately describes the relationship between tool and idea.

Because media have such a strong influence on the form information takes, they necessarily play a role in defining truth as well. Every culture believes its way of determining truth is most authentic. Most industrial societies have their own cultural prejudice in seeing truth as inextricably tied to quantification; any serious study of a phenomenon like economics must be backed by statistics. Yet economic truths could also be found by simply observing the world. Postman is not arguing that one or the other is better, only that “there is a certain measure of arbitrariness in the forms that truth-telling may take” (24). Because of this, each culture’s world view is essentially shaped by its media. Herein lies the problem with television. As it displaced print as the dominant form of media in America, it altered the way people view serious topics such as religion and politics.


Before discussing the medium of television in Part 2, Postman makes its cost clear in Part 1. After establishing the fact that media influence the type, form, and even acceptance of information, he discusses the founding of America when print was the dominant medium. It is no coincidence, he claims, that the Age of Enlightenment, which itself influenced the political theory of the Founding Fathers, happened during the Age of Typography.

In Part 1, Chapter 3, Postman documents how literate and ready to accept the printed word people in America were from the very beginning. He cites statistics that show the extremely high literacy rate for men in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the 17th century: It was “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time” (31). That this happened while the American colonies were still underdeveloped makes it all the more remarkable. Postman’s explanation is that immigrants to the colonies were drawn from the most literate population or regions of England, setting up following generations—including the Founding Fathers—to be devoted to the exposition of ideas. This literacy provided the genesis of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, among other writings.

Postman continues to praise the Age of Typography, looking at things from the point of view of past audiences, or receivers of information.  Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes, His amazement (almost awe) of the audience of the Lincoln-Douglas debates comes through in Part 1, Chapter 4. Because they had been raised on print, the audience was receptive to lengthy speeches that required complex exposition. As Postman shows in the first two chapters, it was the very nature of the medium that had instilled this quality in people. There were exceptions and events like the debates had a “carnival-like atmosphere” (47), but at heart, “these people were the grandsons and granddaughters of the Enlightenment (American version)” (47). In other words, the medium made such heights possible. Yet even as the 19th century exhibited the advantages of print, the seeds that would bring an end to the Age of Typography were being sown with the invention of photography and telegraphy. Postman’s long discussion in Part 1, Chapters 3-4 also serves the purpose of highlighting what was lost to civilization when print was overtaken by television in the 20th century.  Amusing Ourselves to Death Summary and Themes


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