The dominant culture in America today (2019) is the celebrity culture. Note I don't say that celebrity culture is a strong culture, a good culture or that other, less pervasive, cultures don't exist; i just claim that celebrity culture dominates now. This book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was published in 1985, over a third of a century ago by Professor Postman. To my mind the book examines the genesis of the rise of the worship of celebrity and its effect on society brought about by the rise of television. You rejoin, but this is the age of the internet, why should I care about the increasingly less relevant technology of TV? Because to understand where you currently are, it is helpful to understand from where you have come. Dr. Postman's book provides that understanding.
Technology imposes its own demands on how we think and the way we organize our world. Dr. Postman considers the world fashioned by the printing press and the book. He looks at the 19th century and a world in which ordinary Americans could listen to speeches by Abraham Lincoln and others for hours. He contrasts that with a 20th century world in which Americans listen only to sound bites. I will let the book quote is own verdict on the effect of television from page 92: "I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing; that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase 'serious television' is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice - the voice of entertainment.... Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business."
What sort of culture does television produce? The author explores this question. He argues that the entertainment culture severs the context of past and present. Ideas become less important since what we have are not a series of ideas or coherent arguments, but rather an unending series of pictures and visual stimulation. From a personal example, since 1982 I have been involved with presenting various legal conferences. During the first 15-20 years, the papers written and presented at the conferences were the critical information. The papers are still generally provided and partially examined in the oral presentation, but it is now the Power Point presentation that is critical to getting good reviews for a speaker. In most instances without a Power Point (best of all with short film clips and moving figures) the audience would feel the presenter had truly not put out the requisite effort on their behalf.
The author cites Robert MacNeil, of the former PBS news program MacNeil-LehrerNewshour as follows: "The idea is, [MacNeil} writes: 'is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement. You are not required ... to pay attention to no concept, no character and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.'" Pg. 122 paperback.
Dr. Postman uses Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell as his templates for reviewing where the U.S. is culturally. 1984 engendered fear of oppression, but Brave New World posed an equally troubling world to which society willingly fell under its sway because it amused and entertained us. The internet is TV on steroids, think YouTube, Netflix, et al.
I found Dr. Postman's historical and present analysis highly compelling. If the topic interests you, read his book.
- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: METHUEN; New ed edition (1 February 1987)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0413404404
- ISBN-13: 978-0413404404
- Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.4 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 141 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 72,579 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)