Amusing Ourselves to Death

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Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future Theme Analysis

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Much of Postman’s text—which was written in 1985—involves working towards a kind of prediction or projection of an imagined future. As contemporary, 21st century readers, we must then ask ourselves which parts of Postman’s argument resonate with our present reality, and which parts ring false given advances in technology. These questions are central to the thematic content of book—and though Postman cannot know the answers, his text certainly asks them as well.

Postman’s entire text is framed by the disagreement between the work of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell’s novel imagines a world where government repression is responsible for the loss of life, love, and freedom in a hypothetical dystopian future. Brave New World, meanwhile, imagines that people’s desire for shallow entertainment and technology, rather than government repression, will bring about the demise of culture as we know it. Postman supposes that Huxley’s account of the future will be proven more “right” than Orwell’s. In other words, Postman believes that entertainment will bring down culture before the government does. This gesture acknowledges the fact that texts about the future will eventually be proven “right” or “wrong.” This conclusion must also then apply to Postman’s own text, which, though not a fictional literary dystopia, also makes claims about where we, as a culture, are headed. From the start, then, Postman situates his text as the property of imagined future readers, and he acknowledges that his arguments will eventually be proven “right” or “wrong” when the future actually unfolds.

Forty years have now passed since the publication of Postman’s investigation of media and technology and their effects on culture. As “future readers,” we are thus in a position to evaluate how “right” or “wrong” Postman’s predictions were. For example, Postman acknowledges the ascendancy of computers, but maintains that everything we know about computers comes from television. Naturally the Internet, though not even in existence at the time of this book’s composition, now hangs over the text in a way that demands our attention as a new kind of media and public discourse. This is indicative of a larger demand placed upon the reader of a text like this: to investigate how it maps onto the present state of media technologies in America.

Postman’s text interacts with the “future” (which includes our present moment) in ways that Postman could not have foreseen, and this is true of perhaps all works of “Media Theory,” which became popular in the mid-20th century. Nevertheless, contemporary readers of this text are—and should be—compelled to wonder how Postman’s text holds up today—particularly as television remains as ubiquitous as ever, and the Internet has come to form an entirely new kind of public discourse.

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Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future appears in each chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future Quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death

Below you will find the important quotes in Amusing Ourselves to Death related to the theme of Progress, Prediction, and the Unforeseen Future.
Foreward Quotes

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Related Characters: Aldous Huxley, George Orwell
Page Number: xx
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has summarized the plots of two famous dystopian novels: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. Both novels depict a totalitarian government which, through carefully constructed technologies of control, have repressed the populations over which they rule such that political dissent is impossible. However, these methods of control differ vastly––in Orwell's novel, surveillance technologies, economic scarcity, and strict censorship mean that there are no opportunities to think, watch, read, or say anything that opposes the hate-filled, ultranationalistic government agenda. Huxley, meanwhile, depicts a society in which citizens have endless opportunity for entertainment, including drugs, travel, sex, or "feelies," a spin off "movies" (which were a fairly new medium in Huxley's time). 

By saying that Huxley "was right," Postman implies that it would be more plausible for a population to be subdued and controlled by entertainment than by severe and direct government oppression. Crucially, he also suggests that Huxley was "right" in the sense that his dystopian vision is close – uncomfortably close – to the reality of 1980s American society. This comparison illustrates Postman's view that television has acclimatized the population to constant, shallow entertainment, and that in so doing has eroded citizen's ability to engage in rational thought and discourse. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters…

Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has illustrated the way in which media determines the epistemology of a given culture, meaning that the media we use affects what we think counts as knowledge, as well as influencing how this knowledge is gained, disseminated, and used. He has argued that "television-based epistemology" is shallow and absurd, in comparison to print-based epistemology which is more sophisticated, reasonable, and reliable. At the end of the chapter, Postman points out that just because one form of media is dominant, this doesn't mean that others become completely irrelevant. As someone critical of television and the discourse it produces, Postman compares himself to a fish in a "toxic river." In writing this book, Postman hopes to encourage others to become more critical of television-based knowledge and culture. 

Though many may agree with Postman's argument here, this passage also leaves Postman vulnerable to charges of elitism. First, he seems to position himself as exceptionally immune to the influence of television and capable of rational critique. Second, in the years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was published, many scholars have described television as a democratizing medium, accessible to people who may not have the knowledge, time, or resources to consume sophisticated printed texts. Other movements of thought would also dispute Postman's claim to be a clear-headed fish in toxic waters. If we are all a product of the time in which we live, what qualifies Postman to distinguish himself as more connected to the "rational" past than others? 

Chapter 3 Quotes

The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.

Related Symbols: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has described the print culture of 17th and 18th century America in positive, nostalgic terms, mentioning the high literacy rates and the popularity of Thomas Paine's pre-Revolutionary War pamphlet "Common Sense", which sold a total of 3 million copies despite being a complex, intellectually rigorous text. He concludes disdainfully that in the America of the 1980s only the Superbowl would receive such a level of collective public attention. There is much to critique about Postman's romanticization of colonial America. Perhaps the most crucial point is that, if print culture created such rational, sophisticated ways of thinking, how did that same culture allow and encourage the institution of slavery? (Note the vast majority of slaves were illiterate, and teaching a slave to read was even a crime.) 

Postman evidently views mass interest in forms of entertainment such as the Superbowl as inherently detracting from public engagement with serious political and philosophical issues. However, it is not necessarily the case that just because people consume sports and other supposedly shallow forms of entertainment, that they are not also devoting time to more complex issues as well. Sports have played a large role in human life throughout history––including in colonial America––and have long harmoniously coincided with intellectual pursuits. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song [There’s No Business like Show Business], he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There's No Business But Show Business.

Related Characters: Aldous Huxley
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has emphasized both television's uniqueness among other forms of media and its unparalleled influence on culture. Even thoughts, behaviors, and modes of communication that do not immediately appear related to television are often deeply affected by its influence. In this passage, Postman wryly comments that Irving Berlin's famous song "There's No Business Like Show Business," written in 1946, would have been "prophetic" if the title had been altered to "There's No Business But Show Business." The second title highlights the entertainment industry's exceptional status within late 20th-century American culture, as well as the particular power of "show business" to turn all aspects of life into frivolous, flashy forms of entertainment. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has performed a close reading of the phrase "Now... This," arguing that this two-word fragment encapsulates the aggressively shallow and disposable nature of television programming and culture. Furthermore, he has argued that in 1980s America people link credibility with style, meaning that whoever is most superficially appealing is trusted to communicate most accurately. Postman claims that, as a result, "Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." While Postman's critique of the superficiality created by visual culture is valid, following this critique with such a sweeping and unsupported claim about how informed American are somewhat undermines his original argument. 

Although Postman points to major problems in the way that television affects people's judgment and taste, entertainment culture is nonetheless only one of many factors that contribute to the extent to which a given population is well-informed. Other issues include education, social customs, and public accessibility of institutions such as libraries and museums. Furthermore, Postman's exclusive focus on the Western world should not be dismissed lightly. Note that this book was written in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, and thus government censorship of information was still the major factor preventing large parts of the world from accessing knowledge. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.

Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Postman has claimed that television is the enemy of capitalism, a surprising statement that he roots in the example of television commercials. In this passage he argues that television is problematic for capitalism because television commercials focus on "the character of the consumers of products" rather than the products themselves. This observation is one of the most prescient points in the book, and coheres with much contemporary theory about advertising. Cultural critics today are quick to identify the ways in which contemporary advertisements attempt to sell a "lifestyle" (or in other words, a "character") rather than any specific product. This is why it is often difficult to determine what many commercials are for until the every end. 

However, as critics today point out, this ambiguity is far from antithetical to capitalism––indeed, it is a key feature of the capitalist moment in which we live (often referred to as "late capitalism"). Many theorists reason that advertisers have discovered that it is more powerful to sell a personality or lifestyle to audiences than an individual item, especially given the fact that contemporary consumers have such a vast array of commodities at their fingertips. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Related Characters: Aldous Huxley
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

In the book's conclusion, Postman emphasizes that television seems nonthreatening and even highly appealing––yet this belies the enormous danger it poses to society. However, Postman does not suggest that television be "shut down" (indeed, this would be rather too Orwellian a conclusion!). Instead, Postman argues that it will help if people are better informed about the way in which television works, and are thus able to view television culture and its impact on society with a critical eye. In this passage, he explains that the fact that the characters in Brave New World were always entertained was not the real problem; instead, the problem lay in the fact that "they did not know what they were laughing about." 

Postman proposes that if people acknowledge the effect that television is having on society, then they will be able to understand and resist its influence. Ultimately, Postman is less concerned with how people spend their free time or which forms of art and media are most popular, and more worried about people's continued ability to rationally question the world around them.