Neil Postman writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:
Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.
To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.
As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.
To give still another example, one of more complexity: The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist—could not exist—in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.
This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.
I wonder if it’s safe to say that every medium is defined, at least to a large degree, by the information it either excludes or diminishes in importance.
For the past number of years I’ve thought that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from advertising in daily life; that it’s worth paying for services and subscriptions that eliminate the noise, anxiety, and false urgency of advertising. And I think this is still desirable and valuable, but it’s worth reconsidering this to say that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from information-in-excess in daily life.
That is, a deeply lived, engaging, and meaningful life is one where noise of all sorts is kept to the barest minimum. How to do this, practically speaking?