The book originated with Postman's delivering a talk to the Frankfurt
Booksellers Convention in 1984. He was participating in a panel on
Orwell's 1984 and the contemporary world.
It has been translated into eight languages and sold some 200,000 copies worldwide.
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy
didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The
roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had
happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was
another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling:
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Contrary to common belief even among
the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. 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.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Medium is The Metaphor
Postman argues that communication mediums inherently shape the conversations that can be carried out. To take an extreme example, it is not possible to conduct a discussion of philosophy using smoke signals; the conversation is too complex and long to be conducted over such a low bandwidth medium.
Postman in particular describes two mediums of communication, print and television, and the ways in which they influence the conversations carried out using them.
(Note here that we are talking about the conversations a culture has with itself.)
Printed material inherently makes assertions. It is almost impossible to write a meaningful sentence which does not make an assertion; and as such, when reading, the reader is being presented with assertions which they are required to agree with, to suspend judgement upon, or to refute.
A book is essentially a very long set of assertions which build an argument. The reader has to keep track of the assertions, build up an overall picture, and come to a conclusion of his own, which may or may not match or fully match the view of the author.
Postman asserts print as a medium encourages thought and judgement upon arguments and so that when print is the primary means of communication (as it was in the USA, for example, up to the late 1800s) then culture as a whole has a strong, effective public discourse on important issues. People are not only well informed, but have a strong understanding of the issues of the day.
Television as a medium is inherently assertionless; a video of an event makes no assertions whatsoever. It merely displays something that occurred. For example, an advertisement for McDonald's says nothing about the burgers, their nutritional value, their cost or position in the market compared to the competition; instead, it shows happy, smiling children eating McDonald's burgers, followed by a happy clown.
A viewer can like or dislike a McDonald's advertisement, but he cannot accept or refute it, because there is nothing to accept or refute.
Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from the vision offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss and voluntarily sacrifice their rights. Postman sees television's entertainment value as a "soma" for the contemporary world, and he sees contemporary mankind surrendering its rights in exchange for entertainment. (Note that there is no contradiction between an intentional "Orwellian" conspiracy using "Huxleyan" means, which is an argument advanced in the later book The Unreality Industry: the deliberate manufacturing of falsehood and what it is doing to our lives by Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis (New York: Carol Pub. Group, 1989). Postman evidently did not disagree, since he provided a blurb for this book.)
The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content," that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Rational argument, an integral component of print typography, cannot be conveyed through the medium of television because "its form excludes the content." Because of this shortcoming, politics and religion get diluted, and "news of the day" is turned into a commodity. The presentation most often de-emphasizes quality; all data becomes burdened to the far-reaching need for entertainment.
Postman objects to the presentation of television news as it is conveyed in the form of entertainment programming. He cites the inclusion of theme music, the interruption of commercials, and "talking hairdos" as the basis for his argument that televised news is presented so that it cannot readily be taken seriously. Postman further examines the differences between written speech, which he argues reached its prime in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and the forms of televisual communication, which rely mostly on visual images to "sell" lifestyles. He argues that politics has ceased to be about whatever ideas or solutions a particular candidate may possess, but instead whether or not they come across in a favourable way on television. Television, he notes, has introduced the phrase "now this", which indicates a complete absence of any connection between one topic and the next. Larry Gonick used this phrase to conclude his Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication, instead of the traditional "the end".
Postman also examines the relationship between learning and television. He acknowledges that school curricula are integrating television and computers into their classrooms with increasing frequency. He argues that these uses of media do not equip the student with the ability to question the nature of media; they merely provide the student with study guides that are amusing and entertaining--something that Postman argues is fundamentally against the process of learning. Postman draws from the ideas of the media scholar Marshall McLuhan— slightly altering McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message" into "the medium is the metaphor"—to describe how oral, literate, and televisual cultures radically differ in how information is processed and prioritized. He also argues that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge. The faculties necessary to sustain rational inquiry simply are not normally encouraged by televised viewing. Reading, a prime example cited by Postman, is a subject of intense intellectual involvement, at once interactive and dialectical, unlike television which limits involvement to passivity. Moreover, as television is programmed for maximum ratings, its content is determined by commercial feasibility, not critical acumen. Television in its present state, he says, cannot sustain any of the conditions needed for honest intellectual involvement and rational argument.
Given this analysis, Postman regards television as a useful entertainment medium, but questions the efficacy of its use in such intellectually demanding areas as political argument, education and the news. He also repeatedly states that the eighteenth century was the pinnacle for rational argument, truly being the Age of Reason. Only in the printed word, he states, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed. A striking example Postman gives: that the first fifteen U.S. presidents could probably have walked down the street without being recognized by the average citizen, yet all these men would have been quickly known by their written words. However, the reverse is true today. The names of presidents or even famous preachers, lawyers, and scientists call up visual images, typically television images, but few, if any, words come to mind.
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