Amusing Ourselves to Death (Review)

A book review I found from a thoughtful reviewer on Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (I wish I could remember where I came across this, as I have not been able to find it again):

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that television causes our society great danger. This danger comes in two elements. First, television has displaced the printed word. When we decrease reading, we also decrease our cognitive ability. Second, television as a medium has turned everything like politics, religion, news, education, journalism, and commerce into a form of entertainment and hence it pollutes the contents of serious matters. In order to correct from this danger, Postman suggests the solution is not found in turning off the television because our society is too dependent on television. But we should change our way of watching television. We should talk back to the television through a critical mind. (160) When we analyze information and messages that are sent through television, we demystify the media and gain back control over television. According to Postman, we achieve this skill through education such that we are able to control television and learn how to distance ourselves from the forms of information which are from television. (163)

Postman sees a print-based epistemology is superior than television-based epistemology because printed word encourages use of intellect. Printed word requires coherent thinking and encourages rationality. On the other hand, television puts an end to the age of reason because it promotes triviality and incoherence. In addition, television destroys print-based epistemology by displacing the habit of reading.

Postman believes media are more than technologies and they are not neutral. Instead, they are closely related to the content of our communication. Hence, media eventually create the content of our culture. Just like the invention of clock changes our view of time, television changes our worldview. When information is conveyed through a medium, the character of the media of communication is attached in it. Postman distinguishes television as a technology and television as a medium. As technology, television is merely a machine. As a medium, television is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates. (84) Since television is basically an entertainment medium, anything communicates through television is changed to a form of entertainment. Postman uses news as an example. News is not taken seriously anymore but it is all fun. Since the invention of television, our daily news is stuffed with incoherent information that allows us to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. (68) Comparing to the printed medium, the images that television provides lack context. When our believing is based on seeing but not reading, our understanding of the subject will be shaped by the biases of television. (78) How television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.

Postman believes serious matters are polluted when they are communicated through television. When news is communicated through television, the truthfulness of the news is no longer based on reality but on creditability. Religion is turned into entertainment and television takes symbolic otherworldliness away from a worship experience. In television, politics are no longer based on clarity, honesty and excellence but it turns politics into a beauty contest and an emotional appeal. When education communicates through television, it teaches this generation that fun things are the only things worthy to learn.

When we look at the mega church movement, the trend of contemporary Christian music and children programs like Awana, we see how deep entertainment mentality has penetrated through television into every aspect of Christian ministry. We must be alert and not allow the entertainment mentality creeping into our ministry, otherwise our ministry will be another victim of television.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Culture, Television

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