43 pages 1 hour read

Neil Postman

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is a nonfiction book by Neil Postman, published in 1985. Postman was a professor of education and communication at New York University with a special interest in the role of technology and media in society. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York in Fredonia and a master’s degree and doctorate from the Teachers College of Columbia University. In 1971, he founded a graduate program in media ecology, which he headed until his death in 2003.

This guide is based on the first edition of the book, which was reissued in 2005 for its 20th anniversary.


Neil Postman begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by presenting the philosophies of writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (Foreword), noting that the fear of Orwell’s predicted world in 1984 has been overshadowed by Huxley’s prophecy from Brave New World being far more worrying. Postman argues that this prophecy has come to pass in America in the late 20th century. In Chapter 1 (Part 1), he introduces the idea that every medium stands for a metaphor of culture. In Part 1, Chapter 2, Postman explains how media became our epistemology, dictating how we came to know things and make sense of the world. Chapter 3 describes colonial America as a highly literate environment devoted to the printed word from its very founding; Chapter 4 discusses the effect print culture had on American people, as it reached an apex in the 19th century. Postman calls this period the Age of Typography. However, its days were numbered when the end of the century brought telegraphy and photography. The former divorced communication from transportation, while the latter shifted focus from word to image. Together, these changes would transform American culture through irrelevant information, as described in Chapter 5.

Part 2 examines what Postman calls the Age of Show Business, an era focused on the image—especially the technology of television. Chapter 6 reviews how television has taken over all aspects of American society, not just entertainment. The danger of this is that television makes everything in its own image, turning all our institutions into mere amusement. In Chapters 7-10, Postman shows how television has transformed the news, religion, politics, and education. In each example, he makes the case that as a technology, television cannot simply be used as another tool within an existing framework. As with all technologies, it changes the nature of each area of society it touches. In essence, television “dumbs things down”—commodifying complex ideas and not allowing them to develop through exposition, as is the model of advertising. In the final chapter, Postman expands on what he briefly refers to in the Foreword, discussing the two kinds of threats to society—those described by writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. He argues that television follows the Huxleyan model, and at this point in time, there’s nothing we can do about it but attempt to teach people how to interrogate media so they are at least aware of how they work.

The book’s main themes are Television’s Impact on Society, the Role of Media in Communication and Epistemology, and the Golden Age of Typography.