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Amusing Ourselves to Death Book Summary – Neil Postman

What you will learn from reading Amusing ourselves to Death:

– How the medium something is communicated in shapes the message.

– The idea that after we shape our tools are tools then shape us.

– How information overload has lead to people to trust their own opinions even though they are on average less accurate.

Amusing Ourselves to Death book summary:

This is a really interesting book on the way media is changing our lives. What’s more interesting is this book was published in 1985 and now can be seen to be prescient. Wrote just before the dawn of the internet and personal computing the trends and principles from this book still apply. If anything the direction Neil Postman was suggesting we were going has sped up. It’s a fantastic read to understand how our media consumption can impact our society.


The medium changes what matters when communicating:

The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television.

For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.


Marshall McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan taught that the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.

For although culture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by every medium of communication-from painting to hieroglyphs to the alphabet to television. Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.

We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.


The Clock as a tool of thought:

“The clock,” Mumford has concluded, “is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.” In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.

The introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking-and, of course, of the content of his culture.

Moment to moment, it turns out, is not conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created. – ‘We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’

In Mumford’s great book Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.


Typography promotes rationality:

Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist-all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading.

And that is what I mean to say by calling a medium a metaphor. We are told in school, quite correctly, that a metaphor suggests what a thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man; the mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge.

Indeed, our tools for thought suggest to us what our bodies are like, as when someone refers to her “biological clock,” or when we talk of our “genetic codes,” or when we read someone’s face like a book, or when our facial expressions telegraph our intentions.


Print Culture and the Typographic Mind

Almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.”

When everyone can only read (when the televisions and even the photograph didn’t exist) you received all your news and information through the written word. When you thought of presidents or authors you would only be able to think about what they had written, to judge them by their public positions, their arguments and their knowledge as codified in the printed word.

As people were repeatedly and only exposed to the printed word they became competent and managing discourse through this medium. For example, in a print culture, writers know that they make mistakes when they lie, contradict themselves, fail to support their generalisations, try to enforce illogical connections. And, readers make mistakes when they don’t notice, or even worse, don’t care. 

Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a face on a television screen (in Einstein’s case, a photograph of a face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.


We all have prejudices:

We must not be too hasty in mocking Aristotle’s or anyone in the pasts’ prejudices. We have enough of our own, as for example, the equation we moderns make of truth and quantification.

Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem?


The Rise of the Telegraph (the beginning of information overload):

As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge’s famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualised information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use.

This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the “information action ratio.” In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. Yet with the news and all the information we are bombarded with on a daily basis, how much of it do we act on?

This has created what Neil called the great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

The increase and speed of information transmission brought a world of broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase. The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyse it. If you remember from earlier, typography’s strength was that it improved rationality as words are used to create arguments and therefore are there to be analysed and refuted. So, in this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography.

The speed and de-contextualising of information has been rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis-a theory, a vision, a metaphor something within which facts can be organised and patterns discerned. The speed and instantaneous news in the age of the telegraph provides no such context, in fact, it is hampered by attempts to provide any.


The Nature of Television:

The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see.

The sound bite is now more like a sound nibble, and it’s rare, even petulant, to hear someone challenge its absurd insubstantiality; “the question of how television affects us has receded into the background”

When people have arguments on TV people are less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what television does best.


An example of this would be the evolution of presidential debates:

In the typographic world, debates could take up to 5 hours and would be won on the merits of your argument. 

Debates have now become conceived as boxing matches, the relevant question being, Who KO’d whom? The answer was determined by the “style” of the men-how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. The following days, newspapers cover that a candidate KO’d another with a well said joke, or one-liner. This is how the leader of the free world is chosen by the people in the Age of Television.

What matters now is the credibility of the teller. It has become the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is the information that TV helps communicate.


The changing nature of opinions:

Nonetheless, everyone had an opinion about this event, for in America everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us.

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB.

Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information-misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information-information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.


What is excellence in politics in the age of show business:

Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.

In any sport the standard of excellence is well known to both the players and spectators, and an athlete’s reputation rises and falls by his or her proximity to that standard. Where an athlete stands in relation to it cannot be easily disguised or faked. Interestingly spectators at a sporting event are usually well aware of the rules of the game and the meaning of each piece of the action.

With politics there aren’t as many clearly defined rules, people don’t know what excellence is or what the truth is. So, they have to make do with proxies for these things. In the age of show business proxies for excellence rely on appearances. Here lies the problem.


The end of rational consumers?

As the founders of America lived in the age of Typography they can be said to have lived in a more rational time. As information was based in the written format, people were used to analysing information, dissecting the claims and identifying errors in reasoning. But, with the rise of the image the ability of analytical thinking diminishes. In the image centered world points of view aren’t claimed they are implied. This is a subtle difference. 

An example would be this:

In the past advertising for Lynx deodorant would have to convince you that through usage you would attract lots of extra female attention only using the written word. In this format we would all see the flaws in their claims. But in the visual medium, their ads usually place a man who uses their deodorant who suddenly gets lots of female attention.

Because, they haven’t written any text saying ‘Lynx gets you more female attention’ they haven’t made any claims or argued the merits of why this is true. But, what they have done is imply that it has this effect. 

So, the merits of Capitalism were based on the rationality of consumers to make good decisions. But television commercials make hash of it. Remember, to be rationally considered, any claim-commercial or otherwise-must be made in language. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions.

The commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psychological theory of unique axioms: The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry.

Moreover, commercials have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught. Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.


Technology is ideology:

Technology and progress is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.