Book summary: Amusing ourselves to death (III)

This is the third and last part of my summary for the book “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a book about media (specifically TV, as the book is from 1985), how it dictates our way of thinking, and how it influences public discourse. Neil Postman also wrote Technopoly, which I have also read and made a summary of.

This last part will be my notes, almost unfiltered, of the whole book. It is going to be long! And there might be typos and slightly-nonsensical sentences, as it’s not edited for the most part. Remember to read the most important ideas of the book in part one of the summary, and the notes about TV’s way of thinking taking over different areas of life, in the second part.

Full notes

The medium is the metaphor

Today we must look at Las Vegas as a metaphor for the US’ national character and inspiration. Las Vegas is entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment.

American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display; that, in fact, half the principles of capitalism as praised by Adam Smith or condemned by Karl Marx are irrelevant.

Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers.

Culture watchers and worriers (those of the type who read books like this one) will know that the examples above are not aberrations but, in fact, clichés. In short, descent into a vast triviality.

How we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.

I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages.

Another example: The information, the content, that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist (could not exist) in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business.

The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation.

This book is an inquiry into, and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, the medium is the message, I will not disavow the association. In the Bible you can find intimations of the idea that forms of media favour particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture.

Lewis Mumford, for example, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of a man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks; but he is far more interested in how clocks creates the idea of “moment to moment”. “The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes”. In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.

In the book “Technics and Civilization”, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. The inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by Enlightenment philosophers.

I bring all this up because what my book is about is how our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics. What I mean to point out here is that the introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man’s power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking (and, of course, of the content of his culture).

Start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. It has been pointed out, eg. that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature of the ravages of time. The idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of the eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.

Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

Media as epistemology

The book’s intention is to show that a great media-metaphor shift happened in the US, which resulted in public discourse becoming dangerous nonsense.

This is not a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on TV: the focus is on epistemology, not aesthetics. There’s on objection to TV’s junk. In fact, that’s the good part. Besides, we measure a culture not by its trivialities, but by what it considers important. TV is in fact more dangerous when it tries to be serious. And, sadly, many intellectuals and critics often ask more serious stuff to appear on TV.

The important part of epistemology that is relevant to this book is the definition of truth and the sources from which such definitions come.

Media sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, goodness, or beauty; and it’s always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth. Excellent examples, including oral law, on p. 18-22.

The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of the form of expression. It must appear in its proper clothing or it’s not acknowledged. But the book doesn’t make the case for epistemological relativism: some ways of truth-telling are better than others. In fact, the book argues that a TV-based epistemology has grave consequences for public life.

Since intelligence is primarily defined as one’s capacity to grasp the truth of things, what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.

Three points to defend against possible counterarguments:

  1. The book doesn’t claim that changes to media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of in their cognitive ability. The argument is limited to saying that a new medium changes the structure of discourse, by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favouring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.
  2. The epistemological shift has not yet included everyone and everything. Other forms of conversation always remain. However, that TV and print both exist doesn’t imply parity.
  3. TV-based epistemology pollutes public communication, not everything.

In short, as TV-based epistemology takes over, the seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse dangerously declines.

Typographic America

The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quality of printed matter but because of its monopoly. Today there’s more printed matter available than before, but from the 17th century to the late 19th, printed was virtually all that was available.

The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere, eg. in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in “Democracy in America”. “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a metting, and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.”

The typographic mind

In the 19th century in the US, it was normal that politicians had seven-hour debates, and for people to “take the stump” and talk for hours about some topic. Who was the audience? By current standards, their attention span was extraordinary.

The language of many of these debates and speeches was strongly influenced by writing: speeches were written in advance, and rebuttals, too. So, what are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favour?

To engage in the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. Not that analytic thought isn’t possible outside of the written word: instead, the point is to show the predisposition of a cultural mindset.

Even in commerce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse were to be found. If we may take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history tells very clearly that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those with products to sell assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in American may be considered, all by itself, as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment.

In the 1890s, advertisement started using illustrations, photographs, and nonpropositional use of language with the introduction of slogans. By the turn of the century, advertisers dropped reason to became depth psychology and aesthetic theory.

The peek-a-boo world

Telegraphy did something Morse didn’t foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country”. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. The telegraph not only permitted a conversation between Maine and Texas: it insisted upon it. And that would require the content of that conversation to be different to what people were used to.

As Henry David Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those with whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. We became accustomed to context-free information: information that doesn’t alter our plans for the day, or causes you to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve. Instead, it gives us something to talk about.

The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. If a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past (and thus civilised people consider book burning a vile form of anti-intellectualism), the telegraph demands that we burn its contents.

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines–sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement to be forgotten with dispatch #twitter “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

Photography also helped replace language as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. Excellent example on p. 75.

Crossword puzzles became popular at just that point. This suggests that where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use: crossword puzzles, cocktail parties, radio shows, TV game shows, and Trivial Pursuit.

Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining. Of course there’s nothing wrong with entertainment itself: the problem is when we try to live in it.

We have now accepted the epistemology of TV: its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality. The goal of the book is to make this epistemology visible again: try to demonstrate that TV’s way of knowing is hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that TV’s conversation promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious TV” is a contradiction in terms; and that TV speaks in only one persistent voice, the voice of entertainment. In short, TV is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.

The age of show business

The assumption that new media is just an amplification of old media is wrong, in the same way that cars are not fast horses. What is TV? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?

The problem is not that TV presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, ie. entertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on TV. The assumption is that everything presented in it is for our amusement and pleasure.

Sustained, complex talk does not play well on TV. It can be made to play tolerably well, but this it not TV at its best, and it is not TV that most people will choose to watch.

It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest. Films, records, and radio are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But TV is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances.

It is not merely that on the TV screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse; it is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.

Prior to the 1984 presidential election there was a TV “debate” between the two candidates. They had five minutes to address complex questions, so complexity, documentation and logic can play no role. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with “giving off” impressions, which is what TV does best. The relevant question became “who had KO’d whom?”, and the answer was determined by the “style” of the men.

Now… this (news on TV)

“Now… this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see.

TV didn’t invent this world view, but in TV’s “news of the day” we see the “Now… this” mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.

It’s frightening to think that the perception of the truth of a report rests heavily on the acceptability of the newscaster. The credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. “Credibility” here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance. If on TV, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.

All TV news programs begin, and, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. If there were no music, viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.

Another feature of the stylized dramatic performance is the length of each news story: 45 seconds.

The viewers also know that no matter how grave any fragment of news may appear, it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that TV news is designed as a serious form of public discourse. Imagine what you would think of me, and this book, if I were to pause here, tell you that I will return to my discussion in a moment, and then proceed to write a few words in behalf of United Airlines or the Chase Manhattan Bank. You would rightly think that I had no respect for you and, certainly, no respect for the subject. And if I did this not once but several times in each chapter, you would think the whole enterprise unworthy of your attention. [How does this affect newspapers, paper and digital?]

One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtaposition do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on TV for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching TV news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. [4chan, fake news?]

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a TV news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. For those who think it’s hyperbole, I offer the following description of TV news by Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer News-hour”. The idea, he writes, “is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required… to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”

Everyone had an opinion on the Iranian Hostage Crisis, because everyone is entitled to an opinion and it’s useful to have one for when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions. What is happening is that TV is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. And in saying that TV news entertain but don’t inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies” (Walter Lippmann) The reporters who cover the White House are ready and able to expose lies, and thus create the grounds for informed and indignant opinion. But apparently the public declines to take an interest. To press reports of White House dissembling, the public has replied with Queen Victoria’s famous line: “We are not amused”. Perhaps if the President’s lies could be demonstrated by pictures and accompanied by music the public would raise a curious eyebrow. We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate hearings. But we do not have anything like that here. Apparently, President Reagan does is say things that are not entirely true. And there is nothing entertaining about that.

But there is a subtler point to be made here. Many of the President’s “misstatements” fall in the category of contradictions–mutually exclusive assertions that cannot possibly both, in the same context, be true. “In the same context” is the key phrase here, for it is context that defines contradiction. Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.

There is nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.

I do not mean that the trivialisation of public information is all accomplished on TV. I mean that TV is the paradigm for our conception of public information. In presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, TV induces other media to do the same, so that the total information environment begins to mirror TV. [Memory of people complaining that you needed a lot of context to understand the news]

Shuffle off to Bethlehem (religion on TV)

It is the perfect TV sermon–theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting. For TV, bless its heart, is not congenial to messages of naked hate. You never know is watching, so it is best not to be wildly offensive. There are at present thirty-five TV stations owned and operated by religious organisations.

Two conclusions: (1) On TV, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away: no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. (2) What makes these TV preachers the enemy of religious experience is not their weaknesses, but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.

Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. Not everything is televisable, or, more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence.

There are several characteristics of TV that make authentic religious experience impossible: there’s no way to consecrate a space; impossible to force certain rules of conduct; no aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness.

It’s fair to say that attracting an audience is the goal of religious programs, just as it is for “The A-Team” and “Dallas”. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want”. That’s an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader who offered people what they wanted. Only what they need. But TV is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user-friendly”.

I believe I’m not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. There are counterarguments to the idea that TV degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. The difference is that the accoutrements are integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.

The danger is not that religion has become the content of TV shows, but that TV shows may become the content of religion.

Reach out and elect someone (politics on TV)

In “The Last Hurrah”, a character claims that politics is the greatest spectator sport in America. In 1966, Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor: “Politics is just like show business”. If it was the former, there would be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, excellence. If it’s the latter, politics’ main business would be to please the crowd, and its principal instrument would be artifice. The idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity of honesty but to appear as if you are. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. [How new is this?]

This chapter’s purpose is to show how advertising has devastated political discourse. But first, its effects on commerce itself: it has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. Capitalism, as originally conceived, is based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. Where it is assumed that a buyer is unable to make rational decisions, laws are passed to invalidate transactions, eg. children cannot make contracts. In America, there even exists in law a requirement that sellers must tell the truth about their products, for if the buyer has no protection from false claims, rational decision-making is seriously impaired.

The TV commercial is not at all about the products to be consumed, but about the potential consumers of products. About their fears, fancies, and dreams. This would come as a great surprise to Adam Smith. The TV commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways: (1) by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns (see examples on p. 129), and (2) because the TV commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americas would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of TV commercials (see examples on p. 130). Short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; drama is to be preferred over exposition; being sold solutions it better than being confronted with questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our orientation to political discourse.

Some time ago, voters barely knew who the candidate was and, in any case, were not preoccupied with his character and personal life. The point is that TV does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, TV makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” being more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of the interrelations of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image”. On TV the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience. And therein lies one of the most powerful influences of the TV commercial on political discourse. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.

History can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. A book is all history, everything about it takes one back in time, and it promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In 1980, Nobel Prize winner Czelaw Milosz remarked in his acceptance speech that our age is characterised by a “refusal to remember” and he cited, the “shattering” [this is the word used in the book! I wonder what Mr. Postman would have thought of modern social media –Esteban] fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Slowly, we are being rendered unfit to remember.

In the Age of TV, our information environment is completely different from that it was in 1783; we have less to fear from government restraints than from TV glut; in fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America; therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains from where they once were. Eg. the banning of books from school libraries is now largely irrelevant, and distracting; but TV clearly does impair the student’s freedom to read.

Those who run TV do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture of Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously [Social media? YouTube?] But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual [What about documentaries and such?].

Tyrants have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship.

Teaching as an amusement activity

We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street” [Evidence?] It does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational; it is, in promoting what might be called a TV style of learning. And this style is hostile to book-learning or school-learning. As a TV show, it doesn’t encourage children to love school, but to love TV.

It is important to add that whether or not “Sesame Street” teaches children letters and numbers is irrelevant. John Dewey observed that the least important thing of a lesson is its contents: “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes… may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history… For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future”. And one is entirely justified in saying that the major educational enterprise now being undertaken in the US is not happening in its classrooms but in the home, in front of the TV, and under the jurisdiction not of school administrators and teachers but of network executives and entertainers. I don’t mean to imply that the situation is a result of a conspiracy or even that those who control TV want this responsibility.

TV’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses. You will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively achieved when education is entertainment.

We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which TV offers:

  1. Thou shalt have to prerequisites: each program must be a complete package in itself, no previous knowledge is to be required. This is why you will never see a TV program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. In doing away with the idea of continuity in education, TV undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
  2. Thou shalt induce no perplexity: perplexity is the superhighway to low ratings. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
  3. Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt: arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn TV into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, TV-teaching always takes the form of storytelling. Nothing will be taught on TV that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.

The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment. See references to relevant studies on p. 151. One of the conclusions from several studies is that “the meanings secured from TV are more likely to be segmented, concrete and less inferential, and those secured from reading have a higher likelihood of being better tied to one’s stored knowledge and thus are more likely to be inferential”. [I wonder if that would also hold for modern video essays and documentaries, like on eg. YouTube]

What is of greatest significance about “The Voyage of Mimi” (a multimedia educational project, see p. 149) is that the content selected was obviously chosen because it is eminently televisible. Why are these students studying the behaviour of humpback whales? I would suggest that the project was conceived by someone’s asking the question “What is TV good for?” not “What is education good for?” The students will learn from that project that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of an entertainment, and ought to.

The Huxleyan warning

Huxley teaches that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face. In this prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. Those who speak of this invite the charge that they are wimps or public nuisances. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and oppose, than a Huxleyan. Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?

What is happening in American is not the design of an articulated ideology, but it’s an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, discussion or opposition. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology, but to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple [This book was published in 1985].

Now, about remedies for the affliction: not everyone believes a cure is needed, and there probably isn’t any. In spite of this, two solutions are offered: (1) we must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position, for Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus. To suggest this is to suggest nothing at all. Almost equally unrealistic is to expect nontrivial modifications in the availability of media. That said, one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on TV (eg. banning political commercials in the same way cigarette and liquor commercials are banned), even if I’m not very optimistic about anyone taking the suggestion seriously. Improving the quality of TV programs is not good, either: TV serves us most when presenting junk-entertainment, and it’s precisely when trying to cover more serious topics that it’s a menace.

One of the problems is that we haven’t learned what TV is. What is information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? These questions are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their TV. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers. This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to TV (eg. a central thesis of computer technology, namely that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data, will go unexamined).

Only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over TV, or the computer, or any other medium. And how is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind:

  1. The first is nonsensical: to create TV programs whose intent would be to show how TV recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. It’s nonsensical because TV would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, the programs would have to be vastly amusing.
  2. The second is desperate: to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem, namely our schools. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to, because schools haven’t even gotten around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of TV on their students. Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. We are in a race between education and disaster, and we need to understand the politics and epistemology of our media.


I hope you liked my summary of “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman. It’s a great book if you’re interested in media, society, and such, and I highly recommend it!