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Critical Analysis of the Book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

Home Free essays Literature Critical Analysis of the Book 'Amusing Ourselves to Death'

The book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman is a prophetic insight of sorts. It gives an outlook of the future situation of the media and its effects on the society in general. The content of the book can be regarded a prophetic insight because it was written in the era of primitive media, in the year of 1985. The impact of modern technology on media and entertainment was yet to be fully felt. Despite this fact, Postman makes predictions based on current trends in media and entertainment. In the foreseeable future, Postman ascertains that television would turn all aspects of public life into entertainment. The author further elaborates how religion, journalism, politics and education will be affected by this wave of change in media and entertainment. Postman mentions the prophecies by writers Orwell and Huxley. The two had a seemingly close vision of the future impact of technology on society.

They both saw an age where technology would seize our lives to the extent that books and other useful print media would be forgotten. Orwell, particularly, feared a period where books would literally be deemed illegal. Huxley, on the other hand, feared a period where books would be deemed irrelevant in a technologically-oriented society (Postman,22). Contrasting these visions with those of Postman, one can clearly see that the authors are describing the current world we live in. A world where technology is the central focus of our lives and where media and entertainment have taken the centre stage and vanity is the norm. To compare the concepts embodied in the book with those of media and entertainment today, a little time travel is required. Postman will be immersed into four scenarios and the outcome of these scenarios will be predicted with allusions to the principles outlined in his book. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to analyse the book by Postman and compare it to current technological, media and entertainment scene.

Postman Goes to Comic-Con

The first comic book convention was held in Southern California on March 21, 1970. This first convention was termed as ‘mini-con’ and was the stepping stone to successive conventions that attracted lovers of comic books from far and wide. San Diego Golden State Comic-Minicon was held as a way to generate interest in comic books and their conventions. Today the event incorporates other forms of art that are closely related to comic books such as science fiction films and fantasy literature. The comic convention features an awards ceremony; the Eisner Awards and the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival (About Comic-Con International, Wondercon and APE) in order to show how a simple convention dubbed as the minicon was extending to become one of the largest entertainment conventions in the world. This could be related to a description of a ‘peek-a-boo world’ given by Postman. Postman mentions invention of telegraph that eradicated the limit of distance to communication. In this section, Postman describes the world suffering from ‘information glut’ (Postman). Too much information available reduces the need to critically analyse it and, hence, the concept of the ‘peek-a-boo’ world (Postman,19). Postman describes a world where information is accompanied by images, hence, there is little reading or comprehension involved in analysis of the information. This could be likened to comic books that we see all around us today. The idea of rational discourse was centred on the written word more so in the 1800s. For instance Postman highlights importance of written works in liberating European communities from oppression. Ideas could be freely passed only in a society that was literate. Postman hails the society for initially embracing politically driven and purposeful newspapers and journals. However, typographic American print media disintegrated into an entertainment fuelled scenario. Postman, upon visiting a comic book convention, would ascertain his earlier description of a peek-a-boo society and typographic print in America. Through embracing newer forms of print media such as comic books and science fiction literature, critical thinking and subject matter that characterised earlier print media have slowly faded away. Postman would most likely shake his head in disappointment at the amount of money wasted in promoting comic books. According to Postman, print media as well as oratory avenues of communication ought to have ‘a content’, which served as a characteristics of print media before its disintegration with the advent of comic books. Postman, therefore, ascertains his argument of a peek-a-boo world by referring to the world of comic books. He would probably leave shortly after his arrival in protest that such media avenues were degrading to the typographical mind as described is his book.

Postman Commenting on The O’Reilly Factor

In chapter 7 of Amusing ourselves to death, Postman shows how news reporters and stations have become mediocre over time. He begins by analysing the phrase ‘Now..This……’ (Postman) suggesting that this phrase that is popularised by many media houses is retrogressive as far as competent news reporting is concerned. Just as the O’Reilly factor is biased against important stories, Postman says that in the future of the media and news reporting, important issues would be given less consideration. Though, television talk shows such as the O’Reilly Factor are meant to be the sources of political information, they are viewed by many as biased and polarised. In the following chapters, Postman also shows how important avenues of public information were altered for the mere purpose of entertainment. FOX News and its shows such as the O’Reilly Factor have been accused in selective reporting and covering up certain stories. Political polarisation has extended into the media houses that are supposed to be neutral in their reporting. These media houses and political talk shows, in their turn, are nowadays more concerned more about popularity ratings than about constructive journalism. Postman would be unable to sit through the O’Reilly Factor repulsed by the level mediocrity that laces current news reporting avenues. In one of the episodes Joy Walters merely walked out after a heated disagreement that quickly escalated into a fully-fledged argument (O’Reilly,29). Such thing should not occur in a serious and structured television show that is dedicated to political information. When questioned about the incident, Barbra Walters commented, ‘Everything is forgiven when you get ratings’ (O’Reilly). In his critique of the modern day television, Postman mentions lack of context as a setback. This is seen in the fact that different TV programs appear every half hour each based on an entirely different topic.

Different subjects covered in shows do not leave time for the viewers to critically analyse the issues presented. Hence, viewers are bombarded with information and little time to digest it. This fosters the aforementioned peek-a-boo society that only takes in and accepts information, but does not process it. On the same issue, Postman mentions how vanity has been integrated into informative journalism providing an example of Christine Craft who was fired by Kansas City news because she ‘hampered viewer experience’ (Postman). In essence, she was fired because of her looks. This fact allows making a conclusion that looks of the reporter come before the content reported. In general, Postman’s prophecy of mediocre informative journalism seems to have been fulfilled by shows such as the O’Reilly Factor. These shows are geared towards entertaining the audience rather than informing them by reporting relevant content. Therefore, Postman uses the O’Reilly Factor shows to give an example of how current political scene has been affected by poor journalism as well as retrogressive effect of such shows and television networks on politics and informative journalism that cannot be overlooked.

Postman Keeps Up with the Kardashians on E!

At the beginning of chapter 6 – The Age of Show Business, Postman argues against the idea that television is an improvement of the past forms of media and can be used to support the literate culture instilled in the society by print media. Postman explains difference between television as a technology and as a medium. As a technology, it is evidently, a step further as far as communication is concerned. Additionally, it serves as an improvement to print media because it offers avenues for communication that were previously unheard of. However, television does not have to be considered simply as a technology, but also as a medium.

Entertainment networks such as E! and TV shows such as Keeping up with the Kardashians provide a clear example that modern day TV is used mainly for entertainment. Celebrities and their lifestyles have become the main topic of discussion amongst the youth of America. Postman suggests that current generation no longer exchanges ideas but rather images. The typical American teen lacks basic political knowledge but is well aware of the designer dress that Kim Kardashian wore to the last awards show she attended. According to Postman, such shows promote vanity and self-consciousness among the youth, therefore, entertainment based TV is a tragedy. Television as a medium ‘encompasses all forms of discourses’, meaning if all we watch is entertainment shows, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the literature culture that was promoted by the print media age would be simply pushed out. Therefore, the focus on entertainment would prevent the society from paying attention to important issues such as religion, politics and education (Castells). Postman mentions the case of a priest in Chicago who thought it best to use rock music in order to prevent his sermons from being ‘bored’. In doing so the sermons might lose their relevance and people might only be interested in rock music. Postman is not entirely against Keeping up with the Kardashians. He is, however, against television that is entirely based on such entertainment programs since in this case, other important issues would be rendered meaningless. (Wondercon, 2014:126-129).

Postman Interviews Curious George and Dora the Explorer

In the tenth chapter of his book, Postman shows the effect of entertainment on children. From an early age, children can watch shows such as Curious George and Dora the Explorer as learning tools incorporated with entertainment.

In the chapter titled Teaching as an Amusing Activity, Postman elaborates how parents’ guilt was assuaged by such shows as Sesame Street. He agrees with the creators of such shows finding their motive to provide a ‘fun’ way of educating children encouraging. While the intentions of the creators are good, Postman argues that such shows misrepresent typical traditional learning environment. Incorporating entertainment into learning process teaches children only to love education when it is entertaining. Consequently, these children lose interest in ‘non-fun’ educational activities. For instance, children might conceive school only if it would be like the Sesame Street show. Additionally, Postman states that fun should only be used as a tool for presenting learning ideas. However, shows like Curious George and Dora the Explorer, are structured so as to provide entertainment first. Postman considers, that this leads us to a society that is centred on entertainment even in matters related to education. Even though the purpose of these shows is good, it is their general effect that is detrimental. Postman further stresses importance of the aspect of engagement in learning process, the aspect which these television shows lack. Placing emphasis of pedagogical theory, Postman ascertains that what we learn is as equally important as how we learn it. Learning activities especially for young children should involve engagement. Teaching should encourage feedback from children and gauge whether or not they understood the subject being taught. In his interview with Curious George and Dore the Explorer, Postman would ask them how they intend to achieve this interactive aspect in future program episodes. He would then go ahead and ask them whether their programs are undermining ‘book-learning’. Postman argues that ‘book-learning’ and learning experiences offered by such programs are divergent (O’Reilly, 2002:16). The programs advocate for ‘the curriculum of television’ which is based on 3 principles: ‘Thou shalt have no prerequisites’, ‘Thou shalt induce no perplexity’ and ‘Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt’. Postman would ask Dora and George as to whether their programs embrace the 3 aforementioned principles of the television curriculum. The first principle disregards continuity in learning because each episode in most learning programs is complete and self-reliant. The second principle advocates for simplicity of content which is not always the case for educational material. Finally, the third principle states that deliverance of content should shun exposition but be theatrical in order to entertain. Hence, entertainment comes before content (Postman, 1985:48-52).

In his book, Postman describes a society that is blinded by entertainment which has encroached into all aspects of modern life to the extent of taking place on the political stage. Shows like the O’Reilly Factor are rendered mediocre and biased hiding under the pretence of informative journalism. They are more concerned about ratings than about the content of the material they present.

Entertainment has also taken centre stage in education. Dora the Explorer and Curious George teach children that education should be fun and entertaining. This is in contrast with book-education and the actual curriculum. The fact that entertainment has occupied a central position in all aspects of modern society is cemented by the importance that we attach to shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and entertainment-related networks such as ‘E!.’ This assertion is backed up by thousands of people who attend Comic-Con conventions globally. Therefore, in order to become a more cultured society we ought to keep entertainment out of certain aspects of our lives, such as religion, politics and education among others.

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