Thursday, December 26, 2013

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death

As a part of "Audience studies" course, 1st semester, Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social sciences.

“Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman was first published in 1985, more than 25 years ago, when television in India was still a commodity that only the elite could afford. Hence his work, though increasingly speaking to an American audience with his references about TV shows like ‘The Newshour’, can still be perceived as fresh and relevant in our country. Moreover, like his son Andrew Postman wrote in his introduction for the twentieth anniversary edition of the book, the beauty of the book lies in how we can relate the fetishization of TV in the past few decades with the new age amusement for platforms like the internet.  The core of the book, as highlighted by the author himself, is derived from Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” which introduced the idea of how ‘people will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.’
The book revolves around the idea that ‘presentation’ is more important than the actual content shown on TV (or other media). This has resulted in a huge decline in the standards of media products and commoditized politics, economy, religion etc. into a package like the ‘news hour’.  As per Postman, TV gives more emphasis on the need for entertainment as a result of which the quality of information suffers adversely. In the modern day one can easily find examples to substantiate this point. The use of dramatic background music during the news coverage, abrupt entry of commercials, bright large fonts for ‘flash news’, the sudden shift from a very important news to entertaining content (Postman described it as ‘Now…this’), all shows a greater need of entertaining the audience. This is not limited to the electronic media though.  ‘The Times of India’ had ordered its correspondents to cover the coming elections ‘bearing the entertainment and personality angles in mind (Sainath, 2008).’
Postman also argues how the tele-visual communication has moulded the way even politics work. Today’s politics has more to do with how the candidate appears/comes across in a television or other media, than his/her ideas and solutions. This is very true in today’s context where the visual media carried every action to different parts of the country. A candidate is often judged on how flamboyant he/she is in their presentation than their actual content. Politicians termed ‘proactive’, ‘vibrant’ or ‘innovative’ by how they deliver a speech and not by what they deliver in it.
From TV, the internet has taken over the baton. It is now the object of desire that makes man voluntarily sacrifice his rights. Browsing the internet or watching the television, according to Postman, curbs the need for the audience to have an ‘intellectual involvement’ unlike reading a book. The passive involvement of people, coupled with the lack of true rational argument in the programs, has resulted in a form of control. Like Frank Lloyd Wright famously put it, “TV is chewing gum for the eyes.”  One can see an increasing demand for internet in the present generation that is extremely staggering. With smart phones and tablets, our lives today depend on it. Social media networks have taken up chunks of our day that at times we exist more in the cyber world than we do in the real world, constructing identities that would get recognition and be ‘liked’.  The social media can be connected with Huxley’s idea of control where he believed ‘no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history (Postman, 1985).’ We ourselves are constantly watching other users and in return are under constant surveillance by many. There is no central power that controls us. We are nothing but slaves of our own creations.  As Herman and Chomsky highlighted in their book ‘Manufacturing Consent’, the media today is also is a part of propaganda by the elite to control the audience. Television, radio, newspapers are all more keen on promoting commercial, social and political agendas. One can see how, for example the state of Tamil Nadu, the two main political parties try to influence the people. Silvio Berlusconi, former Prime Minister of Italy and a media tycoon, is again an example of how powerful a medium television is, especially in developing nations.


The cartoon can be seen as an example of what is trying to say in his book. The frame gives an impression to ‘passive audience’ that is completely contradictory with the reality. Neil Postman’s book is a work that is cogent and well put forward. It highlights the dangers of Television to the society and how it is bringing about subjugation of our rights. But what can also be seen is a fascination of the writer with an age that has passed – that of written society and intellectualism. What must be noted is how human beings have moved on from an oral tradition to written work. Now a new age has come which might not be as catastrophic as the author has imagined. Mankind is constantly evolving, albeit in ways that might not sound conventional to a certain era. He associates the age of Enlightenment with the written for intellectualism. But it can be seen that the printing press existed much prior to the renaissance. We are slowly embracing a new culture that depends lesser on written work. There is still hope that once we get familiarized we will start acting.
A study by UCLA, which used a three-year, individual-level panel dataset to study the impact of cable television on women’s status in rural India, found that ‘the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility.’(Jensen and Oster, 2006) Perhaps the biggest criticism of Postman’s work is the dismissive attitude he showed to television and the future media. He is skeptical and leaves no space for hope. A hope that one day television viewing can be for the good.


1.       Media ownership trends in India by Paranjor Guha Thakurta Retrieved from:
2.       Quotes by Llyod Wright Retrieved from :
3.       Shrinking spaces, New Places by P. Sainath Retrieved from:
4.       Postman,N(1985) Amusing ourselves to death, Penguin Books, New York.
5.       Printing Press History Retrieved from


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