Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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Communication 317m - #1398
Dr. G. E. Forsberg
Lesson Two

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death chronicles the rise of television culture in America, from colonial times to the modern day; though of course, there were no televisions around in colonial America. This is precisely Postman's focus--the way that America was as a culture first in the age where print media reigned supreme, and how the advent of faster information technologies like television, radio, and even morse code have affected us each in turn. His overall take on the way our society has developed as a result of these technologies (primarily the television) is unapologetically negative, and he strongly correlates the rise of television culture with the decline of the value of our public discourse, and I think it fair to generally paraphrase his argument as 'television is dumbing us down.' Postman does not entirely discount that television can have value, mentioning the comfort it brings to the elderly and the sick and the power it has to stir our passions in the name of good causes, yet firmly he contends that television pollutes public discourse—specifically addressing our political, religious, informational and commercial conversations. To let the man speak for himself, in his own words Postman's main assertion is that as the age of typography fades away to be replaced by television, “the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines” (29).

From America's beginning to well into the nineteenth century, America was as wholly a nation centered on the printed word and an oratorical style founded thereupon as any other in history. “The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of it's monopoly” (Postman, 41). Our founding fathers were renaissance men, learned men, well read in many disciplines and it was precisely their knowledge and beliefs about politics and philosophy that spurred them to forge our nation out of the grips of tyranny. The name that Postman gives to this era when Americans were obedient to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition, which began to be replaced by the what he calls “The Age of Show Business” as early as the last stages of the nineteenth century (Postman, 61).

Until the 1840's, it must be remembered that information could only travel as fast as man could carry it himself, which most expediently meant via train—roughly thirty five miles an hour (Postman, 62). This meant that dialogue and culture were by and large colloquial, and as such people only had access to the information that directly concerned them and those around them in their daily lives. But with Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph, the hindrance to information flow posed by distance became so insignificant it might better be understood as no longer existing at all. Early in the days of media scholarship, academics and social critics were largely concerned with the question of whether television shapes culture, or merely reflects it. Yet as television gradually became our culture, and we stopped asking “what about television?” only to ask continuously ask “what is on television?” the debate has vanished as the initial answer became fairly self-evident.

Changes in the “symbolic environment” are by no means instantaneous. The invention and early years of the television, for example, did not immediately signal a change in culture. Rather, states Postman, the come about more like changes in the natural world: “they are both gradual and additive at first, and then all at once, a critical mass is achieved, as the physicists say” (27). Writing twenty-five years ago, Postman believed that we as a society had achieved that milestone—“we are now a culture whose information, ideas, and...
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