Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
I read this book this past summer, and meant to post a review, but kind of forgot about it. I’m not going to write one, but rather just endorse it as a must read, and include a brief excerpt from Wikipedia below. I am also attaching a scan of chapter one. - DG
Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from that offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss, thereby voluntarily sacrificing their rights. Drawing an analogy with the latter scenario, Postman sees television's entertainment value as a present-day "soma", by means of which the consumers' rights are exchanged for entertainment. (Note that there is no contradiction between an intentional "Orwellian" conspiracy using "Huxleyan" means, which is an argument advanced in the later book The Unreality Industry: the deliberate manufacturing of falsehood a... by Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis [New York: Carol Pub. Group, 1989]. Postman evidently did not disagree, since he provided a blurb for this book.)
The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content," that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus Rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for the aforesaid reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and "news of the day" becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
Postman asserts the presentation of television news is a form of entertainment programming; arguing inclusion of theme music, the interruption of commercials, and "talking hairdos" bear witness that televised news cannot readily be taken seriously. Postman further examines the differences between written speech, which he argues reached its prime in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and the forms of televisual communication, which rely mostly on visual images to "sell" lifestyles. He argues that, owing to this change in public discourse, politics has ceased to be about a canditate's ideas and solutions, but whether he comes across favorably on television. Television, he notes, has introduced the phrase "now this", which implies a complete absence of connection between the separate topics the phrase ostensibly connects. Larry Gonick used this phrase to conclude his Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication, instead of the traditional "the end".