Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a frustrating and maddening book that might be better called Old Man Yells at New Technology and About How Things Were Better Before He Was Born. It’s considered a classic examination of the problems of new technology, which I find odd given how shoddily the argument is made. If this is an argument for books over TV, maybe write a better book…

First, the stuff I agree with:

  • Postman is 100% correct that the medium alters us and that we need to think deeply about how TV (and now, the internet and mobile phones) affects us and changes our perception of the world.
  • Postman is also correct that all new technologies have negative consequences – though I would disagree with him that the negative consequences always outweigh the positive or the potentially neutral consequences.
  • Postman is an engaging, compelling writer who is probably quite funny and who I would have enjoyed (and found amusing) if I didn’t find his argument so ridiculous.

So, that’s about all the positives I can muster.

Postman so horribly cherry-picks his evidence that things were better in 19th century America it’s a lesson in cherry-picking. If you ever want to learn how to cherry pick your evidence to make it seem like you have facts backing up your argument, read this book! Here are some examples:

  • He talks about the vast extent of printing in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries but never, not once, focuses on most of what was printed – we are left assuming everything that was printed was of the level of the work of Tom Paine and the Federalists – which is why, of course, we read so much of the other stuff today. (That’s sarcasm.)
  • He compares the sermons of religious leaders of the past with Televangelicals today and completely ignores that religious leaders would have been far better educated in the 18th and 19th centuries than the average person, compared to pastors today – comparing the same profession centuries apart is not actually giving us a good view; imagine if he had compared scientists from then to now, we would have received a very different image.
  • He focuses specifically on the Lincoln-Douglas debates as if these were average examples of the way people spoke – is it possible that we study these so much because they were actually better than average? is it possible we only think they’re really good because of what Lincoln went on to do?
  • He never talks about what people did for entertainment in previous centuries, beyond noting that some people attended lectures. (How many people do you honestly believe regularly attended 5 hour lectures?)
  • He is rapturous about American literacy levels in the 18th and 19th century and ignores them in the 20th.

It’s also worth noting that Postman doesn’t provide non-cherry picked evidence (i.e. some actual scientific research) until page 151 of my copy; this copy is 163 pages long.

Postman may have an argument (I don’t think he does, but he might) about technology distracting the average person from what’s really important – as if no one was ever distracted by “unimportant things” in the past – but this book does not present a compelling case because the evidence just isn’t there.

  • People were actually less literate in the 18th or 19th centuries, this is documented by hard to research things such as the literacy rate – that is to say, not everyone could read in his ideal time.
  • It’s really hard to believe that everyone attended these lecture series he brings up, given the travel times involved; without evidence of mass attendance, how can we honestly believe it was anyone but the local elites who went to these lectures?
  • People have a wider general knowledge than they ever have before. (I’m sure that was just as true, relatively speaking, in 1985.)
  • Americans are, by some measures, much smarter than they were 100 years ago: IQ scores have been steadily increasing – I’m not saying they’re actually smarter, I just don’t know how “TV killing our brains” and increased IQ scores can be reconciled.
  • Postman was perhaps a little too early in his decision that TV was the worst thing since the telegraph as television (not television news) has generally improved markedly, and was even beginning to do so in his lifetime (I’m sure he didn’t notice).
  • Postman’s brief comments about the computer reveal him to be a luddite rather than someone with actual insight into the new technology. He says “I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology.” It only changed the world irrevocably, but it’s definitely overrated. The telegraph was more important!
  • Postman’s book is a well-written rant with very little evidence to support it – why is this particular book, which fails to make its case, inherently more valuable than a TV program? I don’t know because he couldn’t tell me

Postman’s comments are often downright bizarre. He seems to think Sesame Street was poisoning generations of children. I watched Sesame Street like everyone else my age. Am I dumber as a result? Am I slave to television? (To answer that question: I haven’t had cable for 95% of the last decade…) Aside from the baseless claim that an educational TV show is worse than a dumb TV show like The A-Team, I find this idea insulting. It’s the idea that the latest generation is dumber than the previous generations because things are different. That’s really what he’s up to. He’s not actually giving us a thorough examination of the issues of television as “image over substance” (which so many people want to apply to the internet 30 years later). What he’s really saying is that because things are different for kids than they were for him, or for his parents or grandparents, things are worse. He pretty much refuses to acknowledge the possibility that things are just different – which implies both better and worse at the same time – and that things are always different for new generations, at least since the Industrial Revolution. (It’s definitely likely true that this kind of inter-generational change was not common pre-Industrial Revolution.) If he hated the Industrial Revolution to the degree that he hates the telegraph – and I think I could have written my entire review on how much Postman hates the telegraph and why that’s a sign that he was just a mad luddite – we’d have a book about how the steam engine has made us weaker both physically and morally. It seems like this is a man who just doesn’t like change.

I am so sick and tired of these “everything is awful” books, TV shows and movies. As a Canadian living in Toronto, there’s pretty much no better time for me to have been alive. I am as lucky as anyone who has ever been born (who wasn’t born rich relative to others): I have access to better technology, I have access to better medical technology, and I live in a safe society. I still have my problems – to quote Neil Young: “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away” – but they are extremely minor compared to people who had to worry about living to 40 or even making it out of childhood. And I am aware of this fact because of technology. Technology has aided and abetted my learning, not hindered it. That may not be true for everyone, but nothing is universally positive. (Nor is anything universally negative.)

Don’t waste your time with this rant. It’s not prescient like everyone says. It’s just another example of “The world is awful because change is awful.”


PS: I understand that were are probably a lot of people who feel like this book is particularly relevant with Trump’s election, given what it says about image over substance. And though some of what Postman says about political advertising is undoubtedly true, it’s worth noting that Mussolini was El Duce before TV. And it’s worth noting that there have been lots of other terrible demagogues prior to Mussolini. Radio, film and now TV have only abetted these people, they didn’t create them. Believing that television news is the sole cause of Trump’s rise (and it certainly did contribute) is to subscribe to the same fallacious reasoning that Postman applies throughout his book: people were smarter in the past before TV, radio and the telegraph and made better decisions. There is zero truth to that.

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