Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death opens by saying that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in his book, Brave New World, is one we ought to pay close attention to. Unlike another dystopian novelist, George Orwell, Huxley foresaw that we would eventually be destroyed by that which we love most: entertainment, leisure, and laughter. Orwell’s vision of the future—where government overreach is responsible for the death of free speech and thought—is scary, but ultimately incorrect.
From here Postman build off the work of famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who wrote that “the medium is the message.” Postman agrees with McLuhan, and echoes his argument that the form of a medium determines its content. In other words, the medium of information—whether it’s speech, print, sound, image, etc.—has an effect on the information itself.
Postman discusses how discourse worked when America was a print culture. Because form has an effect on content, and print is a rational form of communication, print culture was more rational. Debates were longer and more thoughtful, and the monopoly of print produced a highly literate society. With the invention of the telegraph and the photograph, however, print lost its monopoly. Now people had ways of getting information instantaneously—information that was decontextualized, often irrelevant, and incapable of dealing with difficult abstractions and interpretations. This set the stage for television. Once television became ubiquitous, says Postman, the decline of cultural discourse rapidly became apparent. Because TV is a form of entertainment media, all information has now become entertainment. Politics, news, religion, education, economics—all of it is subject to the rule that entertainment is king.
Postman concludes his book by acknowledging that television cannot and should not be simply eradicated. Rather, he believes that Americans can save themselves by becoming aware of the potential television has to permanently stymie rational discussion. Once we recognize that forms of media wield this kind of power, we will be able to resist the urge to “entertain ourselves to death.”