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Chapter 4: The Peekaboo World (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Chapter 4: The Peekaboo World

Newspapers came to depend not on the quality or usefulness of their news, but on how much and at what speed they provided it. James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content in the first week of 1848.

Information is important if it creates possibilities for action. In any communication environment, input (what you are informed of) exceeds output (the possibilities of action based on information). But telegraphy and other mediums in the future made this relationship between information and action more remote and abstract. For the first time in history, people were faced with the problem of information glut – their social and political potency had simultaneously been diminished.

You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions:

What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment treatment of the Baha’is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent.

The photograph, unlike words and sentences, does not give us an idea or concept about the world. A photograph by itself cannot deal with the unseen or the abstract. It does not speak of “man”, but of a man – it deals with the here and now exclusively.

Television has become the command center of our actions, through it, we learn about what movies to see, telephone system to use and radio programs to listen to.

As a small, ironic example of this point, consider this: In the past few years, we have been learning that the computer is the technology of the future. We are told that our children will fail in school and be left behind in life if they are not “computer literate.” We are told that we cannot run our businesses, or compile our shopping lists, or keep our checkbooks tidy unless we own a computer. Perhaps some of this is true. But the most important fact about computers and what they mean to our lives is that we learn about all of this from television. Television has achieved the status of “meta-medium”—an instrument that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of ways of knowing as well

The important point here about Postman’s argument isn’t that television has remained such a powerful medium, it is has clearly been replaced by the internet and smartphones. In the world today, what directs our knowledge and our ways of knowing is whatever cyber world we have created for ourselves – and if we were to consider Postman’s argument in our context, the more images and the less written words this new virtual world of ours contains, the worse off we are as individuals, and the worse off we are as a society.

I bring forward these quixotic uses of television to ridicule the hope harbored by some that television can be used to support the literate tradition. Such a hope represents exactly what Marshall McLuhan used to call “rear-view mirror” thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle.

For Postman, this is a mistake because it misunderstands how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. it isn’t that television extends or amplifies culture, it attacks it. The television is a continuation of only one thing – the tradition that began by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessChapter 4: The Peekaboo World (Amusing Ourselves to Death) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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