Seattle to San Francisco this morning, then Napa. We passed Stanford’s campus as we approached San Francisco:
I finished Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and wanted to share a final excerpt.
First, technologies (as mediums for information) are never neutral, in the same way no two landscapes neutrally convey the same visual information, even though they share in the nature or “technology” of being “horizontal earth scenes,” so to speak:
The technology of television has a bias… It is conceivable to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question, What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, and “talking heads” are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For these reasons and more television will not have the same meaning or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum.
But in America, this has not been the case. Television has found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a technology of images could be exploited. One result of this has been that American television programs are in demand all over the world. … American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.
We need not be detained too long in figuring out why. In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s remark on his first seeing the glittering neon signs of Broadway and 42nd Street at night. It must be beautiful, he said, if you cannot read. American television is, indeed, a beautiful spectacle, a visual delight, pouring forth thousands of images on any given day. The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music. There is no question but that the best photography in the world is presently seen on television commercials. American television in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment.
…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.
To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this—the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials—all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that “good television” has little to do with what is “good” about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial images look like.
It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.
Film, records and radio (now that it is an adjunct of the music industry) are, of course, equally devoted to entertaining the culture, and their effects in altering the style of American discourse are not insignificant. But television is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse. No one goes to a movie to find out about government policy or the latest scientific advances. No one buys a record to find out the baseball scores or the weather or the latest murder. No one turns on radio anymore for soap operas or a presidential address (if a television set is at hand). But everyone goes to television for all these things and more, which is why television resonates so powerfully throughout the culture. Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself.
Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.
His point is that television as a medium (rather than as a piece of technology) is the key way to judge its purpose/impact. How it orders our thinking, our expectations about the way (and use) of news and knowing and information, and how we reconcile our ultimate concerns in life with these things.
A lesson I take from this? New mediums tend to “discredit” older content by their nature and their prioritization of conveying information. An ancient poem recited in its native tongue, when carried across time, translations, and most importantly from the medium of oral recitation to printed word, is not the same poem. The majority of its fundamental bits might be there, but the fullness of that poem is lost when it is removed from its original cultural context and the language it was designed for, and the method of conveyance it was designed for.
If we read the Iliad today and think to ourselves, “Well, that wasn’t so great,” it’s likelier that we think that not only because new mediums (new methods of knowing, with their own priorities and biases) have discredited older mediums like the printed word and epic poetry, but also because the Iliad came out of an oral tradition and not a print tradition. These are entirely different way of conveying and experiencing knowledge.
In conserving older content through new mediums, we lose some of their essence in the process, while at the same time building up a sort of bias against them compared to whatever the present mediums for knowing might be.