On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 5
In Chapter 5, Neil Postman is in the midst of tracing the demise of the age of typography and exposition and the rise of the Age of Show Business. But he declines to title the chapter, “The Age of Show Business.” Instead, he offers the playful title, “The Peek-a-Boo World.” The chapter is anything but playful. By the time he finishes, the reader is joined in a battle for truth itself.
He says that two ideas, old and new, brought about the end of his beloved age of print, the Age of Exposition.
“The new idea,” he says, “was that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information” (64).
Readers of Marshall McLuhan will note that McLuhan too stressed that electronic media split the notion of space and time.
The idea: Before electronic media, communication moved only as fast as transportation — the people, horses and eventually trains that carried it. In the case of trains, that was about 35 miles per hour (64).
The invention that first separated time and space, communication and transportation: Samuel Morse’s telegraph.
“His telegraph,” Postman writes, “erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the continent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified American discourse” (65).
The unified American discourse was a technological dream. Morse even proclaimed that the telegraph would make “one neighborhood of the whole country,” a kind of interesting forebear to McLuhan’s “global village.”
It is of interest that Henry David Thoreau saw through this immediately. In Walden, he wrote: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough” (65).
For Postman, of course, Thoreau was prophetic. But Postman goes further. The telegraph not only brought about communication of trivialities simply because people could more easily communicate, even with nothing to say.
For Postman, the telegraph “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse” (65).
He sees three alliterative “demons of discourse” unleashed by the telegraph: irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.
“These demons of discourse,” Postman says, “were aroused by the fact that telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity” (65).
It is an important insight: the uselessness of “context-free information,” news from nowhere for no one in particular, information to share just because it is easy to share (written decades before Facebook.)
The nature of news, of course, was immediately changed by the telegraph. Modern readers might think that news was always prized for being *new* rather than relevant. But that was not the case. News was prized for being local and thoughtful as well as new and news was made to be used.
But this concept of news, Postman says, was “eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed” (66).
Postman cannot help but offer a fun aside about the ubiquity of polling in the news, which he calls a “great loop of impotence.” He says, “The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing” (66).
As I suggested above, Postman’s description of the telegraph can seem like a description of a Facebook scroll. “The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly re-placed by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation” (66.)
But Postman is not after a prophetic description of our era. He is looking for an historic change in the nature of public discourse in the United States.
“The telegraph,” he says, “introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines — sensational, fragmented, impersonal” (70).
After this lengthy discussion of the first concept to change the Age of Exposition, Postman then introduces the second revolutionary concept — photography (71).
Just as exposition and language were being cheapened by the telegraph, Postman finds, a rival emerges. Photography and film were becoming popular and the image was vying to replace the word as a way to represent the world.
“The new imagery, with photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a supplement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality” (71).
Citing one of my favorite books, The Image, by historian Daniel Boorstin, Postman says this “graphic revolution” created a new way of understanding what is true: “Seeing not reading became the basis for believing” (74).
The degradation of language and exposition and the rise of the image, Postman says, “called into being a new world — a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining” (77).
Again, the modern reader cannot help but think of the ceaseless scroll of social media today from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram.
Postman’s demon though was television: “Television gave the epistemological biases of the telegraph and the photograph their most potent expression, raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection. And it brought them into the home” (78).
He finds, “there is no subject of public interest — politics, news, education, religion, science, sports that does not find its way to television. Which means that all public understanding of these subjects is shaped by the biases of television” (79).
He returns again and again to how this seemingly harmless acquiescence to entertainment over information will eventually erode our very concept of truth.
“Our culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is by now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane” (80).
For Postman, with his reverence for typographic culture, we are in a nightmare era. But he aims to fight back.
“It is my object in the rest of this book to make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality” (80).
The battle against the Age of Show Business is joined.