Skip to main content

«  View All Posts

Amusing Ourselves to Death

January 31st, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This is the first blog in a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. In this piece, I’ll respond to the book’s introduction, “In 1985…”

In 2011, Julijonas Urbonas unveiled a model of his Euthanasia Coaster at The Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin. The full-size structure, if built, would be 4.5 miles long, including a massive drop and seven consecutive loops that would cause the car to travel at a lethal speed: 10 G’s. 

That’s 10 times the acceleration speed of gravity. Prolonged exposure to such speeds causes humans to die of suffocation.


Image credit: MoMa, Design and Violence.

Its creator, a humanist seeking more humane ways to cause death, explained,

“It’s a euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely, with euphoria and pleasure, kill a human being. … When [your brain] starts to suffocate, people usually become… euphoric because [the] brain concentrates on very vital activities.”

Before the rider experiences any pain, he loses consciousness and then dies. Rather than ending his days in a sterilized hospital room, surrounded by medical equipment, he can call it quits in a euphoric thrust of amusement. 

The central thesis of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is that the American populous has strapped itself into a televisual euthanasia coaster. Unlike Urbonas’ ride, this coaster kills you slowly. Like it, this coaster kills you by means of euphoric amusement. 

Published in 1985, Postman’s work argued that America was not an echo of George Orwell’s 1984, a censorious totalitarian regime that uses propaganda and control of information to pacify the populous. Instead, it had become the embodiment of a lesser-known dystopia—the one described in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, which used entertainment, amusement, and euphoric drugs to mollify the mobs of humans. 

What Postman writes in the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death is worth considering in its entirety:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. 

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The last phrase, “what we love will ruin us,” is the crux of Postman’s argument. Fear can motivate all manner of behavior, but it is a weak power when compared to love. When we act out of fear, we hate our actions and the doing of them. When we act out of devotion, we feel delight. 

Thus, for Postman, televisual entertainment is not merely a harmless pastime. It is a powerful system for the cultivation of certain loves. Those loves have the power to direct our lives and behaviors far more powerfully than totalitarian coercion ever could. 

Augustine made a similar observation a millennium and a half before Postman:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27–28)

Augustine understood that the root of a malformed, virtueless life was disordered love. If you want to convert the masses into hapless, brainless, powerless followers, you need only to get them to love the things that promote such a way of life. 

I cannot help but conjure up an image I see every day–an image I have seen in myself–of the parent missing their child’s delight and play because they’re absorbed in Instagram reels. Or a family meal where no one speaks because kids are watching YouTube on their iPads, Mom is responding to emails, and Dad is meandering through ESPN stats about the Chiefs. 

No one coerced them into familial impotence and individualism.

They loved their way into it.

Perhaps the oldest and grandest articulation of this insight came in the form of a positive command in the Deuteronomic code: 

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–8)

This follows immediately after Moses’s second exposition of the Ten Commandments, suggesting that he, too, realized a beautiful life could only be powered by a more beautiful love. 

Interestingly, he commands a set of habits—quite literally surrounding yourself with the words of God, not visual images—that cultivate this life. Of course, he couldn’t tell ancient Israelites to stream wholesome Hebrew TV every night, but I doubt he would have if that was an option. Immersion in words does something different to the soul than entertainment.

All of this loops back to where I started: the Euthanasia Coaster. 

I understand the desire not to die in a sterile hospital box. But I do not understand why one would want to die in a final surge of euphoric amusement. There are other choices (note: I am not in favor of euthanasia, but I hope the point I’m making will be clear). A death surrounded by loved ones. A death in a natural space of picturesque beauty. A death hearing your favorite music.

But I would suggest the automatic appeal of death by amusement is symptomatic of the loves cultivated by entertainment. 

What could be better than dying enjoying your greatest love—the screen?

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

Subvert the Internet Without Abandoning It

Learn how to retool the internet for Christian mission from digital practitioners, theologians, and creators.

The latest on faith and tech from leading Christian thinkers.