Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman: A Prophetic Wake Up Call, Echoing Back Decades

Amusing Ourselves to Death | Author: Neil Postman | Genre: Nonfiction

Paperback: 184 | My Edition’s Publisher: Penguin Group (2006) | Original Publisher: Viking Penguin Inc. (1985) | ISBN: 978-0-14-303653-1

Rating: 5/5

“Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.”

Postman, page 80

If you need a wake-up call to the ways that entertainment has reshaped our culture, and continues to infiltrate every part of our society, this is for you.

If you need to confirm your weary suspicions that media is crazy and is making us crazy, this is also for you.

Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues how public thought and conversation has been misshapen in an era of show business, constant entertainment, information overload, reliance on technological media, and ultimately, led us to an addiction us to our own deadly disease. Speaking to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman describes how we are ruining ourselves and our society with our addiction to being entertained.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

It’s a heavy read, and it took me several weeks. But, I think this is important for us to consider. We cannot deny the fact that our entire society has been completely infiltrated by entertainment, technology, and media.

Have we made it through the year 2019 yet? Just barely. Have we survived next year’s presidential election? Lord, help us.

It Got Me Thinking…

Postman’s argument is not simply that TV is bad. Instead, he illustrates to us how vastly different communication has become in recent decades. Taking each chapter to discuss a different avenue – specifically politics, education, news, and religion – and how TV has changed these spheres, his overarching theme is that TV is deteriorating those spaces because it is not suitable to relay this information and to give room for conversation to follow.  

In short, modern day America has become so addicted to entertainment, that we won’t even receive the news and politics and education without it.

But what if those pairs can’t coexist?

When we choose to use the screen to relay all of our news and politics and education and religion, we are choosing to receive it in a way that entertains us, and only widening the gap between our ability to have a thoughtful discussion and our desire to always be entertained. This book makes us wonder how entertainment has changed the difficult conversations.

“Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them in to entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News,’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”

postman, pages 159-160

He says that we are teaching ourselves to love TV – not the information. We are a society of people who are being taught that if it’s not entertaining or pleasurable to me, then I don’t want to hear it. So, the only way that we receive information is by getting it in little pieces crammed between advertisements. There is no cohesion, or connection to its context. There is not background or even time for a full argument, to discuss all of its implications.

Just like our addiction to scrolling and seeing dozens of photos and bits of information in a mere minute, so is our reception to news. Just tons of tiny bits, and no glue to hold it together. Not to mention, no time to make sense of it all.

One of the most alarming chapters to me was Chapter 8 “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” In this chapter, Postman discusses religion and TV. And it’s astounding.

On our screen, we have witnessed profane events and have sinful memories etched into our brains; it’s difficult to use our screen for a sacred event. I can easily turn my screen to a Preds game or Netflix. It’s no problem to click over to Instagram. What about that space is suitable for my worship? What have I truly consecrated and given up in the total adoration for the Lord that I claim to love, when I give him a bit of time between my scrolling and watching? When I rely on my screen for spiritual refreshment, I will always be let down, because there are always apps waiting on either side of my worship, rushing me back.

I should also note that Postman doesn’t claim Christianity, or any other religion in the book. But even as he writes from a secular mindset, he sees these problems – perhaps more clearly than my religious friends can. That’s also astounding.

“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.”

postman, page 160

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it above, this book was written over 3 decades ago. And he is spot. On. In a prophetic tone echoing from its original creation in 1985, Postman has presented us with a detailed warning that we are on the way to our own disaster. His message has not lost meaning over these years. Instead, it’s clearer and more relevant now than ever.

As I read, I thought of my own screens. No, for me it’s not cable television anymore. But it is Twitter and Instagram, Netflix and Crowd City. It’s mindless scrolling, wasting time numbing my brain and believing every headline I read. And after the last couple years our nation has seen, as we mock a president’s ridiculous comments on social media and receive risqué headlines that barely give us the story, who can argue that we don’t have an entertainment problem.

Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I have a hard time stomaching the news because it does feel like a joke. I can’t take the most serious news I will receive seriously, because of its packaging. And of course, the way its packaged and delivered alters the message altogether. It leaves me to wonder – what can I trust?

From a Christian, to a Christian:

Coming from a Christian worldview, brothers and sisters, we have to consider this topic. As Christ-followers, we should desire to be the most present, intentional people in all our conversations – no matter how big or small. But how often does our media get in the way of our presence? How many time have we worshipped our media and entertainment? How often do we let it rob our memory of the dignity of a person?

If the world cares about education, politics, religion, how much more should I? I know our Maker, and I know what he says about the value of people. He has dignified our position, and I call him a liar when I’m not engaging in these conversations.

Most of all, my pride is reigning when I choose entertainment first. I am saying that how I feel is more important than the person or conversation at hand. This is a woe of 2019, but that doesn’t excuse us from the damaging affects of our phones.

The verdict:

We would all do well to seriously consider our relationship with media, and to question our addiction to entertainment. And for that reason alone (and because I love ya and don’t want to see you waste your brain power), I believe this provocative, bold book is well worth the read.

Don’t fall asleep on this one. Put on your brave face. Brace yourself for impact. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in. This is good. Difficult, but good.

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