Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman

It was approximately 10 years ago when my old roommate Andy Cogar recommended that I add Neil Postman’s AmusingOurselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business to my reading list. Amazingly, over those ten years, while I failed to read the book, I managed to recommend it to dozens of people. Andy had given me enough context and overview of the book and the subject matter seemed to make its way into conversation with regularity over the years.

As a result, I finally bit the bullet and read the book myself. And as a result of that, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little review to encourage others to pick up a copy of this nearly 30 year old book.

The version I read was the 20th anniversary edition of the book. At the time of the book Twitter did not exist, and neither did the concept of a ‘smart phone’, at least not as part of our common existence. And the book has so much to say to us with regard to entertainment and discourse as well as contemporary society, but rather than offering my own commentary on the subject, I’ll simply recommend you read the book and give some thought to it yourself.

The main thrust of the book is an analysis of how video media has influenced and shaped public discourse, and reduced much of this discourse to images and sound bites. As a point of comparison, in one section of the book he compares a debate in the 1800s between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (which took place over hours) to modern political debates on television (that are around 1-2 hours with commercials included).

Postman, concludes that we have reduced thoughtful conversation and discussion of issues to an array of sound-bites and interruptions (in the form of commercials and other news stories). He points out that among other things, through the way we receive news and other information we lose our sense of the local, and much of what we discover through ‘news’ has very little imformed impact on our daily routines.

It would be easy to conclude that Postman may be a Luddite of sorts, but that designation would miss its mark. He concludes that television is a fun means for entertainment, but not such a great means for discourse because of the disjointed nature it introduces into conversation and thought. Rather than lamenting technology, he laments that public discourse has become more about entertainment than about intellectual stimulation.

If you can, grab a copy of this book and give it a read. It is thoughtful, and leaves one wondering what Postman would make of the world in which we now find ourselves nearly 30 years after his book. 

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