There are those who say that television rots our brains. Neil Postman would disagree. Rather than rotting our brains, he would say, it removes the necessity to use them. Now, this isn’t some old crank arguing about kids not playing outside anymore, or that the violence on TV will make us murderous. No, Postman argues that the way television presents information is erasing our need to think. Books, he writes, are the solution. As a writer on a book review website, just allow me to adjust my monocle and I’ll tell you why.
Postman begins his argument by identifying how medium affects learning. The world is understood through ideas. Words are how we express ideas. Therefore, the way we express those words vastly affects how our culture understands the world. The medium makes the message. Further, not all mediums are alike. To make his point, Postman compares a typographical culture (America) with an oral culture (secluded Africa). When a dispute takes place in a secluded African village, the judge decides the case based on proverbs and traditional sayings. Postman points out that such sayings are considered trite and childish today, far from being appropriate in a court of law. A lawyer does not solve a problem by reciting a poem, but by knowing the written code. Secondly, Postman points out a difference between how speech is thought of in comparison to writing. Speech is more casual, less thought out, and cannot be peer reviewed (unless it is written down beforehand). However, writing is usually edited and reviewed, thus making it a more accurate source of information. Thus, mediums are not all the same, and a typographical culture is superior to an oral one.
Why? A typographical culture is based around order and rationality. To read, one must be able to form abstract ideas out of words, follow an argument, understand the context of ideas, and ultimately weigh the evidence in order to come to a conclusion. In a typographical culture, one begins at the beginning and ends at the end, withholding judgement until the entire argument is put forth. This culture requires self-discipline and the ability to pay attention. Postman argues that through the invention of the telegram (and, thereafter, television), American culture has forsaken the idea of hearing out a full argument and even in understanding the context of information. Now, news no longer needs to be put into context, it merely exists. Photographs capture an instance in time, but allow for no context or development or change. Information becomes useless trivia, for it has no reference or usage in life. Our culture, Postman argues, becomes one of peek-a-boo: here one meaningless second, evaporated the next.
The biggest issue with television, however, is the overwhelming emphasis on entertainment. This would not be a bad thing, were it sequestered to the realm of storytelling (television shows and movies). Making stories more entertaining is a good thing. The issue is when everything is viewed only in light of its entertainment value. Politics becomes a reality show. Religion becomes something that must fight for our attention with the other soap operas, requiring special effects and louder music. News becomes sensationalized, vapid, and oftentimes wrong, because it must be entertaining (and nothing is more boring than facts). Even education fails to teach because we have become so unable to focus on anything that is not entertaining, forcing schools to amuse rather than teach. Even when important ideas are presented on television, it is always with the idea of entertainment in mind. Thus ideas cannot be fully explained or argued, for the viewer might not view the full discussion, thereby being unable to follow along and thus becoming bored.
Ironically, there were moments in this book in which I found myself becoming bored. I would zone out because of a lack of action, because Postman kept discussing the history of the typographic mind and the way things were in the 1800s. Yet, perhaps this is why the book resonated so strongly with me: because I see all these tendencies within me. Tendencies to settle for entertainment rather than education, reach for a movie rather than struggle with a sermon, laugh at politics rather than actually think through a politician’s ideas. This is a book which slapped me in the face and forced me to grapple with what to do as a result. Really, that might be the one spot that this book falls short: a lack answers on what to do next. Unfortunately, this is not due to failure to address it, but because Postman has few answers. His big answer is through better education, but this book came out in 1985! The same issues persist today, and the rise of the internet has only worsened many of them. It seems that the only recourse is to force ourselves to think, and attempt to teach those around us to do the same.
Postman begins the book by describing two ideas of the future by popular novelists in the 20th century. In 1984, Orwell imagined a world in which culture was forcibly kept from thinking by an oppressive government. In Brave New World, Huxley describes a different future: one in which culture degrades due to the people’s own choice. Postman warns that we are headed for this future. We are choosing a world free of thought, because it is enjoyable. A world of empty laughs and mindless screens: amusing ourselves to death.
At least it will be entertaining.
Published on 26 May, 2016. Last updated on