15 Aug 2009

Sample Essay: Book Report: Neil Postman's 'Amusing Ourselves To Death'

Neil Postman is an American professor and mass media critic who is best known to the general public for his 1986 book about the influence of new media and television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his book, he talks about the effects of modern-age television to the culture of society over time. He advocates how television, in its role as an emerging medium of communication and influence, ends up perverting the gravity of serious issues and topics, reducing them to mere entertainment. Thus, this kind of treatment adversely leads to people being conditioned to take lightly the importance of these issues, consequently affecting their capability to make informed decisions.

It is clear from Postman’s writings that he intends his book to be for the benefit of the general public. The message of his book, taking into context the Huxleyan warning, is that while society has been vigilant as to avoid the world created in Orwell’s 1984, the world has slowly but inadvertently turned into Huxley’s version. Through a lack of resistance and an insatiable need for diversion, society has allowed the television to become a soma, or something that serves as a catalyst for pleasure and satisfaction, and the removal of pain and suffering. Postman then tells people how “Orwell envisaged the government controlling information. But it is more like Huxley. Orwell was more accurate for an age of print where banning books had more impact. Now, despite outcries, it has little effect. Television doesn’t ban books; it displaces them. We have the opposite of censorship – too much TV, but all of the TV is simplistic and noncontextual” (Postman 138-141). The perceived importance of this message, from his standpoint, necessitates having the book as widely read and available as possible, therefore it can be safely said that his intended readers are indeed composed of the general populace.

In essence, the main argument of Postman in his book is that the television has all but replaced the printed word as the focal point of today’s culture. This in turn has led, unintentionally as it may seem, to the trivialization of what was once a serious treatment of political, social, and religious affairs. Indeed, the perception of today’s society remains that some political and religious figures are more concerned with the effect of their appearance to the public, rather than the effect their ideas and judgments will have. It is evident that Postman emphasizes the value and worth of the written word over the “new” version over the television when he writes: “In academia the written word is truer than the spoken (citations should be of written things), despite oral exams” (Postman 21). While some would say that his strong defense of print media as compared to visual media is no longer relevant today, modern society has all but continued to prove some, if not all, of Postman’s philosophies to be true and right on the mark. The thrust of Postman’s argument therefore is that public discourse, or free speech on a variety of topics, has been degraded because it is mainly presented more through imagery than words. For him, the advances in presentation of new knowledge through photographs, and now videos, have turned out to be injurious and harmful to the public’s right to make informed choices. He says, “As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it” (Postman 24). With that, he brings forth the idea that the medium used to present information to the people is just as important as the information itself. With the perceived shift in mediums, from print to television media, the very information and ideas given to the public is in itself, changed.

Basically, the entirety of his book revolves around the general idea that television is not the best medium of communication for the ideas and issues of a continuously evolving society. He talks about how people, in their desire for satisfaction and entertainment, choose to actively entertain the ministrations of the television media and in the process lose their capability to evaluate critically the information they get. The key to the problem, as he so well puts it: “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether” (Postman 87). The only problem with this argument is that the author obviously loses an aspect of his objectivity when he discusses the negative effects of television media. This possibility for bias is evident when Postman clearly expresses distrust in information given over the television, thus leaving room for question as to the relative objectivity of his statements. Furthermore, solid and conclusive data as to the negative effects television has played in society is not really given, but merely glossed over to a certain extent. What he does instead is to give examples of philosophical arguments about how television slowly subverts religion, and how televised debates supposedly warp the perceptions of viewers.

At the end of the day, there is still nothing damaging enough to use in society’s present age that would justify all of Postman’s revolutionist ideas. The only other problem with regard to the basic premise of his book is that it was of course based on ideas and perceptions back in 1985. He talks about how “We have reached, I believe, a critical mass in that electronic media have decisively and irreversibly changed the character of our symbolic environment. We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word” (Postman 28). But given the nature of a constantly evolving society, it becomes hard therefore to reconcile his criticisms of the television and its influence then compared to the influence it holds now. What happens is that his idea of electronic media in the book is restricted to televisions, thus closeting the concept from future developments such as the advent of new forms of visual media like instant messaging and the Internet. To say that the extent and manner of their influence is the same then and now would be grossly incorrect and not mutually exclusive at all.

Nevertheless, regardless of some concepts that seem outdated to a certain level, the book remains a classic work that encourages people to take a second look at the powerful influence media has. In the end, Postman helps us to understand the various implications and inadvertent results of society’s image-driven culture, and how significant the effect television media will have on shaping future generations of humanity. Writing with all the acumen and foresight of a visionary, he illustrates eloquently through his book the difference between the spoken and written culture, and the new image-driven one, and provided a key frame of reference in understanding what really lies behind the television-driven age society now lives in.

Works Cited

Postman, Neil. (1986).Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. US: Penguin (Non-Classics).

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