Neil Postman is deeply worried about what technology can do to a culture or, more importantly, what technology can undo in a culture. In the case of television, Postman believes that, by happily surrendering ourselves to it, Americans are losing the ability to conduct and participate in meaningful, rational public discourse and public affairs. Or, to put it another way, TV is undoing public discourse and, as the title of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death suggests, we are willing accomplices.
Postman bases his argument on the belief that public discourse in America, when governed by the epistemology of the printing press, was "generally coherent, serious, and rational" (16) because the reader was required to ingest, understand, and think about the logic of the author's arguments before coming to a verdict. In effect, intelligence in a print-based world "implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a field of concepts and generalizations" (26). However, with the emergence of television and its rapid ascendancy in our culture, Postman argues that discourse has become "shriveled and absurd" (16). TV, he says, assaults us with fleeting images and disconnected bits of information with no context except for the "pseudo-context" which is manufactured "to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use" (76). In effect, TV demands a certain kind of content-the "medium is the message" in the words of Marshall McLuhan-that Postman believes is suitable to the world of show business and hostile to the print-based world of logical thinking (80). This is not to say that TV ignores important subjects such as current affairs, politics, religion, science, and e...
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... rationalized as a necessary means toward American expansion; when slavery was justified because blacks were considered less human than whites; when women were denied the right to vote; or when workers and union organizers were being beaten by corporate enforcers and police?
Even with these weaknesses, Postman makes a significant contribution to enlarging our understanding of television and the epistemology it establishes. He may be too fond of typographic America, but he has some very important things to say about how television works, and we should be paying attention.
McChesney, Robert W. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times and Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting 1928-1935
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
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