⇠ Books

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Author: Neil Postman

tl;dr: A book I recommend to anyone looking to understand our current state of politics. Our political outcomes will be shaped by the mediums on which we consume political information. E.g. Twitter has become a de facto political agora, and what do we have now? The Twitter President. The book was written in 1985 but has and will remain timeless.

The over-arching argument he makes is that TV is killing our political discourse. That we used to be a society that could recognize the writing of Presidents but not their faces. That crowds had the attention to listen to 7 hour debates between Lincoln & Douglas. That “in a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas.” And that to the detriment of society, that’s all reversed now.

He argues that media is the primary way in which we attain knowledge. That when we lived in a world of print, especially before the telegraph, we were a society based on reason. Once the “graphic revolution” happened, reason was replaced with entertainment - which manifested into a politics of show business.

It became accepted wisdom that politics and entertainment were inseparable. Think Bill Clinton playing the saxophone - what does that have to do with negotiating multilateral trade deals or commanding wars? 30 years later this paradigm has only grown and become more entrenched.

He also describes how our news is now “peek-a-boo”, with stories scaring us then retreating. Never to be seen again.

There is a bit of fool’s gold though. Chapter 10 offers an explicitly luddite view of technology in teaching. This part is simply overkill. Yes, people will learn much more from books than documentaries. But people do also learn differently, which he basically argues against. To his defense, it would have been hard to predict the profound impact of software back then.

He closes with an argument that we don’t need to fear 1984 coming to fruition, rather Brave New World describes our destined struggle. That the government won’t need to forcefully monitor and censor the information we consume, so long as the information we consume conditions us not to think.

It’s also a very quick read.


Amazon: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

First published on May 23, 2020