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January 30, 2006

Guest Writer Andrew Postman: Introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death by His Dad, Neil Postman

"When Jon Stewart goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth."

Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, was my teacher throughout graduate school, my friend, colleague and hero; he showed me what a critic was supposed to do. Andrew Postman is his son, and a writer, who delivered the eulogy after Neil’s death in Oct. 2003. I am therefore quite honored to present for the first time online…

Special to PressThink

Introduction to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition
of Amusing Ourselves to Death

(Penguin Books, 2006; Used by permission)

by Andrew Postman

Now this?

A book of social commentary…published 20 years ago? You’re not busy enough writing emails, returning calls, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), checking out websites, sending text messages, IM’ing, Tivoing, watching what you’ve Tivoed, browsing through magazines and newspapers, reading new books – now you’ve got to stop and read a book that first appeared in the last century, not to mention millennium? Come on – like, your outlook on today could seriously be rocked by this plain-spoken provocation about The World of 1985, a world yet to be infiltrated by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs, call-waiting, caller ID, blogs, flat-screens, HDTV and iPods? Is it really plausible that this slim volume, with its once-urgent premonitions about the nuanced and deep-seated perils of television, could feel timely today, in the Age of Computers? Really, could this book about how TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment; how the image is undermining other forms of communication, particularly the written word; and how our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly available, context be damned, that we’ll be overwhelmed by “information glut” until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused…Can such a book possibly have relevance to you and The World of 2006 and beyond?

I think you’ve answered your own question.

I, too, think the answer is yes, but as Neil Postman’s son, I’m biased. Where are we to find objective corroboration that reading Amusing Ourselves to Death in 2006, in a society that worships TV and technology as ours does, is nearly an act of defiance, one of those I-didn’t-realize-it-was-dark-until-someone-flipped-the-switch encounters with an illuminating intellect?

Ask the Students

Let’s not take the word of those who studied under my father at New York University, many of whom have gone on to teach in their own college (and occasionally high school) courses what he argues in these pages. These fine minds are, as my father’s was, of a bygone era, a different media environment, and their biases may make them, as they made him, hostage of another time, perhaps incapable of seeing the present world as it is rather than as they’d like it to be. (One man’s R-rated is another’s PG-13.)

And just to make a clean slate of it, let’s not rely, either, on the opinions of the numerous readers of the original edition of Amusing Ourselves (translated into a dozen languages, including German, Indonesian, Turkish, Danish and, most recently, Chinese), so many of whom wrote to my father, or buttonholed him at public speaking events, to tell him how dead-on his argument was. Their support, while genuine, was expressed over the last two decades, so some of it might be outdated; we’ll disregard the views of these teachers and students, businesspeople and artists, conservatives and liberals, atheists and churchgoers, and all those parents. (We’ll also disregard Roger Waters, co-founder of the legendary band Pink Floyd, whose solo album, Amused to Death, was inspired by the book. Go, Dad.)

So whose opinion matters?

In re-reading this book to figure out what might be said about it twenty years later, I tried to think the way my father would, since he could no longer, nor could I ask him. He died in October 2003, at age 72. Channeling him, I realized immediately who offers the best test of whether Amusing Ourselves to Death is still relevant.

College kids.

“Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.”

Today’s 18-to-22-year-olds live in a vastly different media environment from the one that existed in 1985. Their relationship to TV differs. Back then, MTV was in its late infancy. Today, news scrolls and corner-of-the-screen promos and “reality” shows and infomercials and 900 channels are the norm. And TV no longer dominates the media landscape. “Screen time” also means hours spent in front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone and handheld. Multitasking is standard. Communities have been replaced by demographics. Silence has been replaced by background noise. It’s a different world. (It’s different for all of us, of course – children, young teens, parents, seniors – but college kids form an especially rich grouping, poised between innocence and sophistication, respect and irreverence.)

When today’s students are assigned Amusing Ourselves to Death, almost none of them have heard of Neil Postman or been exposed to his ideas (he wrote over 20 books, on such subjects as education, language, childhood and technology), suggesting that their views, besides being pertinent, are relatively uncorrupted.

I called several of my father’s former students who are now teachers, and who teach Amusing Ourselves to Death in courses that examine some cross-section of ideas about TV, culture, computing, technology, mass media, communications, politics, journalism, education, religion, and language. I asked the teachers what their students thought of the book, particularly its timeliness. The teachers were kind enough to share many of their students’ thoughts, from papers and class discussion.

“In the book [Postman] makes the point that there is no reflection time in the world anymore,” wrote Jonathan. “When I go to a restaurant everyone’s on their cell phone, talking or playing games. I have no ability to sit by myself and just think.” Said Liz: “It’s more relevant now. In class we asked if, now that there’s cable, which there really wasn’t when the book was written, are there channels that are not just about entertainment? We tried to find one to disprove his theory. One kid said the Weather Channel but another mentioned how they have all those shows on tornadoes and try to make weather fun. The only good example we came up with was C-SPAN, which no one watches.”

Cara: “Teachers are not considered good if they don’t entertain their classes.” Ben (whose professor called him the “class skeptic,” and who, when the book was assigned, groaned, “Why do we have to read this?”): “Postman says TV makes everything about the present – and there we were, criticizing the book because it wasn’t published yesterday.” Reginald: “This book is not just about TV.” Sandra: “The book was absolutely on-target about the 2004 presidential election campaign and debates.” One student pointed out that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for the California governorship on The Tonight Show.

Postman’s And Now This…

Maria noted that the oversimplification and thinking “fragmentation” promoted by TV-watching may contribute to our Red State/Blue State polarization. Another noted the emergence of a new series of ‘bible magazines,’ whose cover format is modeled on teen magazines, with coverlines like ‘Top 10 Trips to Getting Closer to God’ – “it’s religion mimicking an MTV kind of world,” said the student. Others wondered if the recent surge in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder was an indication of a need to be constantly stimulated.

Kaitlin switched her major to print journalism after reading the book. Andrea would recommend it to anyone concerned with media ethics. Mike said even those who won’t agree with the book’s arguments – as he did not – should still read it, to be provoked. Many students (“left wingers and right wingers both,” said the professor) were especially taken with my father’s “Now…this” idea: the phenomenon whereby the reporting of a horrific event – a rape or a 5-alarm fire or global warming, say – is followed immediately by the anchor’s cheerfully exclaiming “Now…this,” which segues into a story about Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple, or a commercial for lite beer, creating a sequencing of information so random, so disparate in scale and value, as to be incoherent, even psychotic.

Another teacher remarked that students love how the book is told – by a writer who’s at heart a storyteller. “And they love that he refers to books and people they’ve heard of,” she said. Alison: “He doesn’t dumb it down – he makes allusions to great art and poetry. Yet it’s impossible to lose track of his argument.” Matt said that, ironically, “Postman proves you can be entertaining – and without a single picture.”

Of her students’ impressions, one teacher said, “He speaks to them without jargon, in a way in which they feel respected. They feel he’s just having a conversation with them, but inspiring them to think at the same time. ” Another professor noted that “kids come to the conclusion that TV is almost exclusively interested in presenting show business and sensationalism and in making money. Amazing as it seems, they had never realized that before.”

It no doubt appears to you that, after all my grand talk of objectivity, I’ve stacked the deck in favor of the book’s virtue. But that’s honestly the overwhelming reaction– at least among a slice of Generation Y, a population segment that one can imagine has as many reasons not to like the book as to like it. One professor said that in a typical class of 25 students who read the book, 23 will write papers that either praise, or are animated by, its ideas; two will say the book was a stupid waste of time. A 92% rating? There’s no one who expresses an idea – certainly no politician – who wouldn’t take that number.

“A common critique was that he should have offered solutions.”

Of course, students had criticisms of the book, too. Many didn’t appreciate the assault on television – a companion to them, a source of pleasure and comfort – and felt as if they had to defend their culture. Some considered TV their parents’ culture, not theirs – they are of the Internet – so the book’s theses were less relevant. Some thought my father was anti-change, that he so exalted the virtues fostered by the written word and its culture, he was not open to acknowledging many of the positive social improvements TV had brought about, and what a democratic and leveling force it could be. Some disagreed with his assessment that TV is in complete charge: remote control, an abundance of channels, and VCRs and DVRs all enable you to “customize” your programming, even to skip commercials. A common critique was that he should have offered solutions; you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, after all, so what now?

And there was this: Yeah, what he said in 1985 had come startlingly true, we had amused ourselves to death…so why read it?

One professor uses the book in conjunction with an experiment she calls an “e-media fast.” For 24 hours, each student must refrain from electronic media. When she announces the assignment, she told me, 90% of the students shrug, thinking it’s no big deal. But when they realize all the things they must give up for a whole day – cell phone, computer, Internet, TV, car radio, etc. – “they start to moan and groan.” She tells them they can still read books. She acknowledges it will be a tough day, though for roughly 8 of the 24 hours they’ll be asleep. She says if they break the fast – if they answer the phone, say, or simply have to check email – they must begin from scratch.

They actually walk down the street to visit their friend.

“The papers I get back are amazing,” says the professor. “They have titles like ‘The Worst Day of My Life’ or ‘The Best Experience I Ever Had,’ always extreme. I thought I was going to die, they’ll write. I went to turn on the TV but if I did I realized, my God, I’d have to start all over again. Each student has his or her own weakness – for some it’s TV, some the cell phone, some the Internet or their PDA. But no matter how much they hate abstaining, or how hard it is to hear the phone ring and not answer it, they take time to do things they haven’t done in years.

They actually walk down the street to visit their friend. They have extended conversations. One wrote, I thought to do things I hadn’t thought to do ever. The experience changes them. Some are so affected that they determine to fast on their own, one day a month. In that course I take them through the classics – from Plato and Aristotle through today – and years later when former students write or call to say hello the thing they remember is the media fast.”

Like the media fast, Amusing Ourselves is a call to action. It is, in my father’s words, “an inquiry…and a lamentation,” yes, but it aspires to greater things. It is an exhortation to do something. It’s a counterpunch to what my father thought daily TV news was: “inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” Dad was a lover of history, a champion for collective memory and what we now quaintly refer to as “civilizing influences,” but he did not live in the past. His book urges us to claim a way to be more alert and engaged. My father’s ideas are still here, he isn’t, and it’s time for those of a new generation to take the reins, natives of this brave new world who understand it better.

“’Change changed,’ my father wrote.”

Twenty years isn’t what it used to be. Where once it stood for a single generation, now it seems to stand for three. Everything moves faster. “Change changed,” my father wrote in another book.
A lot has changed since this book appeared. News consumption among the young is way down. Network news and entertainment divisions are far more entwined, despite protests by the news divisions (mostly for their own benefit).

When Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, goes on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point – that serious news and show business ought to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic – the hosts seem incapable even of understanding the words coming out of his mouth.

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 (Dad’s words, not mine, from 1985). Fox News has established itself, and thrived. Corporate conglomeration is up, particularly among media companies. Our own media companies don’t provide truly gruesome war images as part of the daily news, but then they didn’t do so 20 years ago either (though 40 years ago they did). The quality of graphics (i.e., the reality quotient) of computer and video games is way up.

Communities exist that didn’t, thanks to the Internet, particularly to peer-to-peer computing. A new kind of collaborative creativity abounds, thanks to the “open source” movement, which gave us the Linux operating system. However, other communities are collapsing: far fewer people join clubs that meet regularly, fewer families eat dinner together, and people don’t have friends over or know their neighbors the way they used to. More school administrators and politicians and business executives hanker to wire schools for computers, as if that is the key to improving American education.

Huxley, not Orwell

The number of hours the average American watches TV has remained steady, at about 4½ hours a day, every day (by age 65, a person will have spent 12 uninterrupted years in front of the TV). Childhood obesity is way up. Some things concern our children more than they used to, some not at all. Maybe there’s more hope than there was, maybe less. Maybe the amount is a constant.

Substantive as this book is, it was predicated on a “hook”: that one British writer (George Orwell) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision that many feared would come true, was mostly off-base, while another British writer (Aldous Huxley) with a frightening vision of the future, a vision less well-known and feared, was scarily on target. My father argued his point, persuasively, but it was a point for another time – the Age of Television. New technologies and media are in the ascendancy.

Fortunately – and this, more than anything, is what I think makes Amusing Ourselves to Death so emphatically relevant – my father asked such good questions that they can be asked of non-television things, of all sorts of transforming developments and events that have happened since 1985, and since his death, and of things still unformed, for generations to come (though “generations to come” may someday mean a span of three years). His questions can be asked about all technologies and media.

What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If they’re not worth it, yet we still can’t stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because that’s just how we’re wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?

“It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.”

My father was not a curmudgeon about all this, as some thought. It was never optimism he lacked; it was certainty. “We must be careful in praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us,” he wrote. Nor did he fear TV (as some thought) across the board. Junk television was fine. “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health,” he wrote. “60 Minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are.”

A student of Dad’s, a teacher himself, says his own students are more responsive, not less, to Amusing Ourselves than they were five or ten years ago. “When the book first came out, it was ahead of its time, and some people didn’t understand its reach,” he says. “It’s a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century.” In 1986, soon after the book was published and started to make ripples, Dad was on ABC’s Nightline, discussing with Ted Koppel the effect TV can have on society if we let it control us, rather than vice versa. As I recall, at one juncture, to illustrate his point that our brief attention span and our appetite for feel-good content can short-circuit any meaningful discourse, Dad said, “For example, Ted, we’re having an important discussion about the culture but in thirty seconds we’ll have to break for a commercial to sell cars or toothpaste.”

Mr. Koppel, one of the rare serious figures on network television, smiled wryly – or was it fatigue? “Actually, Dr. Postman,” he said, “it’s more like ten seconds.”

There’s still time.

Brooklyn, New York
November 2005

(Copyright © Andrew Postman 2005; all rights reserved. Used by permission)

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…


Andrew Postman is the author of half a dozen books, on a range of subjects diverse enough to be either pleasing or disturbing. He has written the novel Now I Know Everything and several non-fiction books, including one each on sports, computers, human accomplishment at various ages, the life of a plastic surgeon, and, most recently, how to die well (as co-author of Chasing Daylight, with Eugene O’Kelly). Andrew’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, New York, Glamour and Parenting. He lives with his wife and children in Brooklyn, New York, not far from his father’s grounds of stomping.

PressThink, Oct. 7, 2003. Neil Postman (1931-2003): Some Recollections.

Pressthink, March 25, 2004. Remembering Neil Postman, 1931-2003.

This site,, has links, recollections by fans of his writing, and some video of the man.

Neil Postman Online has links to his writings on the Web, and writings about him.

(Feb. 2) At Fishbowl NY is this Q & A, with some amusing pics. PressThinking with Jay Rosen: The Times of Our Times, and Other Media Preoccupations.

Wonkette had some reactions to it. “Look, if the best scandal that the Post can come up with is that they deleted comments from a blog, can they really be the nation’s top paper? I mean, the Times has three bigger scandals than that break daily between their early and late editions.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 30, 2006 1:33 AM