Neil Postman was born March 8, 1931 in New York; he died October 5, 2003. After graduating from the State University of New York, he went on to obtain a masters degree and doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia. In addition to authoring over 200 articles and books, he founded a media ecology program at Steinhardt School of Education in 1971 (Saxon 1). Postman continually lectured and wrote on the effect of media upon culture, and his work was enormously prophetic of the current trends in American society we see today.
Neil’s best-known book is “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and in this book it seems as though he holds a blatant aversion to the medium of television. Although this is partially true, I believe his actual aversion was to the ignorance of American society regarding the way a medium affects the receivers’ epistemology. In other words Postman was frustrated that Americans did not understand every medium affects the message and the way in which the message is to be interpreted by its receivers. Postman rightly claims, “Truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged” (Postman 22). The foundation for Postman’s argument is well grounded; he uses the historical examples of telegraphy and photography to illustrate how the medium has affected the message transmitted. Then he shifts the conversation to the modern super medium: television. I seek to explain his three basic examples of a medium affecting epistemology and present a possible response.
First, the advance of telegraphy was a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it a dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Before telegraphy information was slow in reaching the multitude, but when information did arrive it was generally pertinent to its audience. Only the most important stories were given priority to be transmitted. Newspaper articles of the day were far more localized in content, ensuring at least nominal relevance to their audience. However, telegraphy changed everything:
As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded… In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use (Postman 67).
Suddenly the entire world became the context of news. By dramatically increasing the scope of the context of news, telegraphy successfully diminished the potency that had formerly characterized local news.
Second, the advance of photography was also a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it a dangerous and largely undetected ideology. Before photography, the content of nearly all transmitted information was primarily the written word. Since the time of Gutenberg, the written word dominated the platform of widespread public discourse. (Clearly the spoken word also held a significant place, but the written word reached far more people with far less effort.) Photography revised the perception of information. Postman explains,
Language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after. But there is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for a photograph does not require one. In fact, the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way (Postman 73).
Despite the fact that Postman is partially unfair to claim that the primary goal of photography is to isolate an image from context, his point is well taken. The photograph in many ways does strip away context and present an unreal depiction of reality. As a side note, I would in fact argue that an elite group of the finest photographers reclaims the context within the photographs themselves. However, the vast majority of photographs do segregate a specific element from a moment in time and detach that element from reality. Perhaps equally dangerous is the effect this sudden shift to a visual depiction of reality had upon its viewers. Though the serious thinker knows photographs obviously lie, the average viewer takes a photograph to represent reality. Prior to the photograph, people were presented with a proposition in written form, and they could make a decision about its validity based upon reason and intellect. The photograph in some ways eliminated the thinking process and forced people to assume the visual content was reality – whether it actually did represent reality or not.
Third, the advance of television was a monumental accomplishment in terms of technology, but this new technology brought with it quite possibly the most dangerous and largely undetected ideology of all. Combining the flaws that came with the mediums of telegraphy and photography, television has become the super medium of our day. Postman describes that,
Television has become, so to speak, the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe… so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background… This, in turn, means that its epistemology goes largely unnoticed (Postman 79).
Essentially Postman’s claim is that the medium of television has turned all public discourse into a form of entertainment. The fact that television entertains is not a problem in itself; the danger arises because the medium changes how its viewers perceive the message that they have been given. Television has presented so much amusement that now every single thing that airs on television is perceived as show business. In other words, when television attempts to transmit serious discourse, it is seen as nothing more than further entertainment. Postman summarizes, “No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure” (Postman 87). At this point the question arises, “How has television accomplished such an austere feat?” It has done so in a significantly simplistic fashion: essentially the leaders behind the television industry have played a brilliantly subtle game. They have taken what they believe viewers desire to be and portrayed that utopia on the screen. Postman’s illustration is the television commercial; he says, “This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of [the viewers] themselves. (Postman 135). The viewer sees himself as he or she wishes to be.
Now that we have taken a detailed look at Postman’s argument, what is the proper response? I believe a proper response is threefold. First, we must learn from the examples of history that every technological advancement carries with it biases and potentially dangerous ideology. Postman provided (at least) three excellent examples, but his list is by no means an exhaustive one.
Second, we must observe with a fine-toothed comb the specific ways that current mediums alter their content. For example, although Postman did not live to see the full rise of social media on the Internet, his principles apply to this and every other medium.
Third, we must educate all who will listen about the dangers and hidden influences each medium contains. If one does not understand precisely how a medium affects the message, he or she is deeply susceptible to its influence. Obviously every medium is not inherently against the good of man and of society, but each does contain hidden and potentially harmful qualities that are invisible to the untrained eye. Censorship of informative discourse is one of the greatest enemies to the good of humankind. “To paraphrase David Riesman only slightly, in a world of printing, information is the gunpowder of the mind; hence come the censors in their austere robes to dampen the explosion” (Postman 139). It is purely unacceptable to intentionally squelch the flow of information to the people about such critical topics. Postman points out that, “it is sometimes forgotten that the churches in America laid the foundation for our system of higher education” (Postman 55). Of all people, Christians should be leading the charge in this particular avenue of informing the public. “[Alous Huxley] believed with H.G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media” (Postman 163). Now that you are informed, you are responsible to inform others. Be educated or be enormously susceptible to the dangers of media. No other alternatives exist.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Neil Postman, 72, Mass Media Critic, Dies.” The New York Times. 9 Oct. 2003. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Rosen, Jay. “Neil Postman (1931-2003): Some Recollections.” PressThink. 7 Oct. 2003. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <http://archive.pressthink.org/2003/10/07/postman_life.html>.
The Neil Postman Information Page :: Books, Online Articles, Audio, Bibliography. Joshua Sowin. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <http://www.neilpostman.org/>.