In this book Neil Postman helps to expound the meaning of the expression, "the medium is the message," or, as he rephrases, "the medium is the metaphor". While I have long pondered the inherent meaning behind the forms of media we use to communicate and how those mediums affect our communication, Postman has brought much needed clarity and insight to my own musings on this subject.
Anyone who is an avid reader and movie goer should know that some elements that work well in writing do not always work well in a motion picture. In my own experience I have also noticed the limitations of drama and preaching as I seek to communicate the gospel during my yo-yo shows.
Every medium has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to communication. A sermon can be useful for thorough examination of a text or detailed argumentation (though they are rarely used for this anymore). A skit cannot. On the other hand, a well done dramatization can implement metaphor and story with a terseness and power that words alone can rarely match.
Postman takes this truth as the foundation for his basic argument and builds upon it. Every form of communication has a bent towards a certain set of ideas that are convenient for that medium to express. The ideas that are easiest to express will become the most important ideas for a culture. This argument becomes clearest in his discussion of the news media. Before the advent of the telegraph information could only travel as fast as an individual could carry it. This meant that public discourse in news papers tended to be more local while major "world" events could be more thoroughly analyzed. This sounds backwards to us because we tend to think that more information would lead to better analysis, but the opposite is the case. Today we are bombarded by so much "news" information that has little or nothing to do with us at all that we have no time to thoughtfully consider the great events of our time. Consider this past election. Many of the best and most important things that were said never got any coverage or analysis at all because they could not be summarized in a 45 second clip in the evening news. In a media environment that favors short, fast, fresh, we have no time to think about what is happening, and just barely enough time to react so we can answer a question in a pole to make more news to respond to. Our debates today are not about polices but about looking pretty and not looking stupid. In contrast Postman describes a debate between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858. "Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply." And this was a short debate. How much time do we give our politicians to tell us their answers to the current world crises? Two minutes, maybe three. Unlike the audiences in 1858 we are not ready to handle the real issues and so we do a little dance instead until someone misses a step.
Postman argues that television has done this to us. It is a medium that favors fast, brief, exciting communication, while shunning long thorough analysis. Consequently the fast and fresh information has become all that is important to us while we have lost our ability to think critically. Have you tried having a political conversation with someone you disagree with lately? How often does it resort to name calling and baseless arguments about associations? Have you ever had a thoughtful discussion about a real issue. If you have you are one of the lucky ones.
Postman also delves into the effect of television on education. Sesame Street was originally an experiment to see if education can be entertaining. They discovered that indeed it can. What they failed to see is that Sesame Street also taught us that education should be entertaining. Unfortunately entertainment can only handle certain kinds of discourse and learning so we end up crippling ourselves instead of simply making learning more fun. Anything that cannot be learned through entertainment is pushed to the side while we count to 10 in Spanish.
The insights of this book, which I have only pointed out a few, are profound and its implications vast. How much more does this apply to the internet than televison (the book was written in 1985). I will have to get his work "Informing ourselves to death" to find out. This book has certainly sparked a curiosity in me concerning this line of discussion. I would like to pursue it further.