Amazing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited

by Lance Strate (Author)
©2014 Textbook XVI, 170 Pages


Neil Postman’s most popular work, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), provided an insightful critique of the effects of television on public discourse in America, arguing that television’s bias towards entertaining content trivializes serious issues and undermines the basis of democratic culture. Lance Strate, who earned his doctorate under Neil Postman and is one of the leading media ecology scholars of our time, re-examines Postman’s arguments, updating his analysis and critique for the twenty-first-century media environment that includes the expansion of television programming via cable and satellite as well as the Internet, the web, social media, and mobile technologies.
Integrating Postman’s arguments about television with his critique of technology in general, Strate considers the current state of journalism, politics, religion, and education in American culture. Strate also contextualizes Amusing Ourselves to Death through an examination of Postman’s life and career and the field of media ecology that Postman introduced. This is a book about our prospects for the future, which can only be based on the ways in which we think and talk about the present.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Part One
  • Chapter 1. Fatal Amusements
  • Chapter 2. Building a Bridge to Neil Postman
  • Chapter 3. Media Ecology as a Scholarly Activity
  • Chapter 4. The Evolving American Media Environment
  • Part Two
  • Chapter 5. Breaking the News
  • Chapter 6. The Tribe Has Spoken
  • Chapter 7. Neon Gods
  • Chapter 8. Grand Theft Education
  • Chapter 9. The Tempest
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


I can only begin by acknowledging Neil Postman, who was my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, and who continues to serve as a source of inspiration. I would also like to express my gratitude to Neil’s family, especially his wife Shelley and his son Andrew, for their friendship, assistance, and support for this project.

I also want to express my appreciation for Neil’s colleagues Terence P. Moran and the late Christine Nystrom, who was with me in spirit as I worked on this book. And I owe a debt of gratitude to Ed Wachtel and Joshua Meyrowitz as well for encouraging me to apply to Postman’s Media Ecology doctoral program back when I was working on my MA, and to my old professors Gary Gumpert and the late Jack Barwind for introducing me to media ecology scholars and subject matter. I also want to make special mention of two of my classmates in the doctoral program, Robert Albrecht and Paul Lippert. And I would have liked to mention all of Neil’s media ecology students by name, but I particularly want to acknowledge Mary Alexander, Mary Ann Allison, Susan B. Barnes, Yariv Ben-Eliezer, Eva Berger, Robert K. Blechman, Cheryl Casey, Margaret Cassidy, Brian Cogan, Peter Costello, Peter Fallon, Robert Francos, Thom Gencarelli, Stephanie Gibson, Casey Man Kong Lum, Susan ← ix | x → Maushart, John McDaid, Bill Petkanas, Lori Ramos, and Janet Sternberg. Paul Levinson deserves special mention for his advice, encouragement, and for the challenge he continually provides in taking a position contrary to that of his former mentor.

Through the Media Ecology Association, we have carried on the work begun by Postman and his colleagues, and again I wish I could name everyone I have come to know through that organization, but I especially want to mention Corey Anton, Stephanie Bennett, Susan J. Drucker, Raymond Gozzi, Jr., Fernando Gutiérrez, Donna Halper, Octavio Islas, James C. Morrison, Valerie Peterson, Phil Rose, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul A. Soukup, SJ, and Edward Tywoniak. A special thank you as well to Dale Winslow and my NeoPoiesis colleagues.

In addition to Ed Wachtel and Paul Levinson, I want to express my gratitude to my colleagues at Fordham University, including Babette Babich, Dominic Balestra, Kimberly Casteline, Lewis Freeman, Margot Hardenbergh, Adeena Karasick, Ron L. Jacobson, Beth Knobel, Tom McCourt, Roberta Palmiero, our Provost Stephen Freedman, and our President, Joseph M. McShane, SJ. Perhaps the greatest debt I owe is to my students, and once again I wish I could name them all, but I particularly want to mention Michael Plugh and Matt Quayle, for the inspiration they have given me.

I would be remiss if I did not say thank you to David Park and Mary Savigar of Peter Lang Publishing for proposing I write this book, and for their forbearance as I worked on it.

Finally, thank you to my family for your patience and understanding, to my children Benjamin and Sarah, to my wife Barbara, and to my mother Betty Strate.

And to all those who, in my haste, I have forgotten to include here, please accept my apologies and know that you have my gratitude as well. ← x | xi →



I imagine there are two kinds of readers of this book, those who have already read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), and those who have not. For those who have not, my goal is to provide you with a summary of Postman’s arguments concerning the negative effects of the television medium, and technology more generally, on public discourse and social institutions, along with a demonstration of their continued relevance to our contemporary culture and media environment. I know there are some who inevitably question the value and validity of a book that is, as of this writing, almost thirty years old, and not getting any younger, and would perhaps remain unmoved by a reminder that we still study Plato’s writings from the 4th century BCE. And there is no denying the fact that Amusing Ourselves to Death does not take into account the Internet, web, social media, and mobile technology, let alone the explosive growth of programming options made available via cable and satellite television, while the Reagan-era culture that Postman critiques continues to recede into the past. In presenting you with an updated analysis, I realize that the passage of time will render my references increasingly less relevant as well. For this reason, my intent is also to present Postman’s overall approach, grounded in the field of media ecology, and show how it can continue to be applied in the future. Of ← xi | xii → course, if you have not read Amusing Ourselves to Death yet, I hope that this book will convince you to do so, and enhance your reading when you do.

Readers already familiar with Postman are aware of his exceptional eloquence, a standard that I make no claims of approaching. Postman wrote for a general readership, addressing major issues and concerns of his time, and like many of his other books, Amusing Ourselves to Death is best understood as an extended essay, meant to stand on its own. In taking a scholarly approach to Postman’s work, I have endeavored to relate Amusing Ourselves to Death to Postman’s other books, especially Technopoly (1992). This is also essential to the task of updating Postman’s arguments to take into consideration computers, information technology, and new media, and the proliferation of technology in general. I have chosen the title Amazing Ourselves to Death to reflect this wider scope, and the fact that it is ultimately our innovations in media and technology that are the cause for considerable concern. The subtitle, Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited, alludes to Aldous Huxley’s set of essays, Brave New World Revisited (1958), reflections on his novel, Brave New World (1932), which Postman highlights as prescient in its warnings of a future in which freedom is sacrificed for the sake of fun. In addition to situating Amusing Ourselves to Death within Postman’s entire body of work, I have further endeavored to contextualize his arguments through a biographical sketch and a general discussion of the field of media ecology with which he was associated. All of these subjects require much fuller treatment than can be accorded here, but I hope that what I have provided will be a starting point for further investigation.

At this point, I should probably explain that Neil Postman was my professor and mentor, as well as a colleague and friend, and he had a profound influence on my intellectual development and scholarship. As a graduate student, I attended seminars with him as he worked out the ideas that appear in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and even observed him working on the book, sitting in a conference room near his office (some of the book was also written in a Bagel Nosh in the vicinity of Flushing, NY). Postman wrote with a black felt-tip pen on a yellow pad, and often mouthed the words as he was writing. When I asked him why, he emphasized the importance of writing for the ear, rather than the eye, as the key to good writing. I was in the privileged position of being able to get to know Neil Postman fairly well over the course of about 23 years as well as to work with him on occasion (see, for example, Postman, Nystrom, Strate, & Weingartner, 1987). And I have published several articles about his thought (Strate, 1994, 2003, 2006b, 2006c), and included ← xii | xiii → discussions of his legacy in two books I have written, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study (2006a), and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology (2011). I also organized a symposium entitled Perspectives on Postman held at New York University on April 6, 2006, and edited a special issue of Explorations in Media Ecology (Vol. 5, No. 1) devoted to his life and work. So when David Park contacted me about writing a short book about Amusing Ourselves to Death for his Critical Introduction to Media and Communication Theory Series for Peter Lang, it struck me as an offer I could not refuse. I hasten to add that there are quite a few others, especially among Postman’s former students and colleagues, who also would have been logical choices to write this book, and who could have done so as well as if not better than I, and in all probability would have approached the task differently. And it goes without saying that Postman himself would have been the best choice to revisit the arguments he made almost 30 years ago, and if only he were still alive, I would be happy to turn my pen over to him and let him compose a new commentary with his characteristic charm, clarity, and intelligence.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was the most popular and influential of the approximately 25 books Postman authored over the course of his career. It was not an academic book, although it quickly became required reading for scholars and students throughout the humanities and social sciences. It also has had a major impact on media practitioners, artists, and intellectuals throughout the United States, and across the globe. In 1992, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame released a solo album inspired by the book, entitled Amused to Death. The back cover of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the book includes praise from Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, and Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons. In a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw included it in his list of the five best books on journalism (and it was the only book not specifically devoted to news). In a 2012 blog post, John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, included it in her list of recommended reading. Alan Kay, one of the inventors of the graphical user interface on which the Macintosh and Windows operating systems are based, includes the book on his own recommended reading list along with two others by Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) and Conscientious Objections (1988).


XVI, 170
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2013 (April)
journalism politics religion education critique television democratic culture media ecology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 170 pp.

Biographical notes

Lance Strate (Author)

Lance Strate studied with Neil Postman at New York University, where he earned his Ph.D., and is currently Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. The author of Echoes and Reflections and On the Binding Biases of Time, he is a recipient of the Media Ecology Association's Walter Ong Award for Career Achievement in Scholarship.


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