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Amusing Ourselves to Death

Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By Neil Postman
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Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) explores the detrimental effects the medium of television is having on the content of public discourse. Over the course of two centuries, the United States has moved from being a culture defined by the printed word to one where television and triviality dominate.

Key idea 1 of 7

Our ideas about truth have evolved in tandem with the evolution of communication media.

The American spirit can be hard to pin down. It’s easy to talk about grand ideas – equality, democracy, our inalienable rights – but, at the end of the day, such noble abstractions say little about the lived, everyday experience of Americans.

A better way to pinpoint the true national mood of the United States is to look at its major cities.

For instance, in the mid-nineteenth century, America experienced an immigration boom, and the melting pot of New York City came to embody the multiplicity of American identity. In the twentieth century, Chicago was the hub of American commerce, representing both industrial and human progress.

Today, the American spirit is most manifest in Las Vegas, the city of entertainment.

Understanding how America got here is a matter of understanding how new mediums of communication give rise to new forms of content.

Early in humanity’s history, the most crucial communicative medium was, of course, speech – an exclusively verbal form of communication decipherable by solely aural means. Later, with the invention of the alphabet, language took on physical form; the written word froze the flow of human utterances, and transformed language into something that could be studied and analyzed.

Hence, the invention of writing gave rise to grammarians and logicians, philosophers and physicists, novelists and neuroscientists – all the people who try to think about and make sense of the world.

Now, as we move from typographical to televised representations of the world, a new shift is taking place. Public discourse is no longer based on words, but on images. And this new medium is simply unable to adequately convey serious, intellectual content.

This is worrisome, because the dominant medium of communication of a particular era always comes to define our ideas of truth and legitimacy.

Let’s say you just graduated from a doctoral program at Harvard University. You’d expect Harvard to give you a degree, right? Our culture is still a print-oriented culture, so no one’s going to believe you if you just say you have a PhD from Harvard. You have to produce written proof.

But as our culture becomes dominated by television, appearances, which are often deceiving, are starting to be taken more seriously than printed truths. Accordingly, our ideas about what is and isn’t true – and thus the structure of public discourse – are shifting as well.

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