When discussing oppression, many writers turn to George Orwell’s 1984 as a model for the means by which people and information can be controlled. Most fear Big Brother, an out of control and all-controlling government, as the thing most capable of destroying freedom. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman puts forward the idea that freedom is not lost through governmental force. Instead, freedom is lost through distraction.
Written in 1985, at the highpoint of action news, televangelism, and political commercial campaigns, Postman examines how the spread of television has changed America’s public discourse. Or, to be blunt, how TV has made us dumber. For Postman, the problem is not television itself, but the desperate addiction to entertainment that television has given America. There is no longer news, there is entertainment. Political candidates, education, and religions are focused on entertaining an audience, not bettering society.
Postman’s book is not about the dangers of what he calls “junk TV.” It isn’t television shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones that make us dumber. Nor is it mindless video games or trashy teen books that are ruining our nation’s collective intelligence. All of these things are designed for entertainment, and cannot pretend to be more than what they are. It is the parts of our culture that present themselves as being more than entertainment that we should fear: our news, our politicians, our religious leaders. These are the people and organizations who say they stand for more than entertainment and whom we trust to provide us with real guidance. But often, it is these same people whose sole concern is putting on a good show and pulling in the widest audience, irrespective of self reflection and intelligent discussion. This is the true danger of the Age of Entertainment.
Twenty years on, Postman’s examination still holds up. In today’s world of entertainment on demand, continuous contact, and personal marketing, Amusing Ourselves to Death is more relevant than ever. With constant access to all the things we could ever want, we have long since stopped caring about the things we need. When we can instantly complain about political candidates’ presentation or appearance, we feel no need to understand their platforms or take part in the government that runs our nation. When we can effortlessly spread our religious beliefs, we lose the need to examine them or consider what they mean.
Amusing Ourselves to Death is a difficult book. Not in its writing, which is quite easy to read, or in its topic, which is familiar to any citizen of modern America. It is difficult in its demand that we examine our culture and the mediums that we use to stay informed. We live in a world where self-reflection and reasoned discourse have become, if not impossible, difficult and discouraged by the culture of our time. Which, of course, is exactly the danger Postman feared the most.