Neil Postman's "Amusing ourselves to death" -- summaries

Chapter 5: "The Peek-a-Boo World"

Telegraph made a 3-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse

Introduced on a large scale:
1) irrelevance
3) incoherence

The telegraph made information into a commodity, a thing that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meanings.

Penny papers had already elevated irrelevance to the status of news -- human interest news played little role in shaping decisions and actions of readers

Telegraph erased the central position of the local and the timeless with the dazzle of distance and speed--

As Thoreau had asserted, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant; the abundant flow of info had little to do with those to whom it was addressed; there was a sea of information with little of it to use.

The telegraph may have made the country into one neighborhood, but it was a strange one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other. This fact is the principal legacy of the telegraph: "By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the information-action ratio."

For the first time in human history people were faced with the problem of an information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency

Postman asserts that voting is the next to the last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it though a desiccated question and them submerge it in a mass of similar opinions and then convert it into another piece of news.

GREAT LOOP OF IMPOTENCE -- 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.

Before telegraph the information-action ration was close so that people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies of their lives.

In the information world created by the telegraph the sense of potency was lost.

It brought about a world of broken time and broken attention.

The whole world became a context for news. Everything was everyone's business.

Postman says A MAJOR CONTRIBUTION OF THE TELEGRAPH TO PUBLIC DISCOURSE WAS TO DIGNIFY IRRELEVANCE AND AMPLIFY IMPOTENCE--IT ALSO MADE PUBLIC DISCOURSE INCOHERENT. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention (different than books, which are containers for quiet scrutiny and organized analysis of information -- took time to write, read, discuss a book and to judge merits -- book was an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past.

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics; its language was one of headlines, sensational, fragmented, impersonal. news took the form of slogans to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.



Writing with light -- ironic in that photography and writing do not inhabit the same universe of discourse. Photography is a language speak that speaks only in particularities, and its vocabulary of images is limited to concrete representation. Unlike words, the photo does not present us an idea or concept of the world, except as we use language to convert the image to an idea

Pictures need to be recognized; words need to be understood -- the photo presents the world as object; language presents the world as idea. Thus the photo lacks a syntax and only testifies that someone was there or that something happened. [And, with digital manipulation, even this can be a lie.]

Susan Sontag said a photo implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it--but all understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears.
Language is the medium we use to challenge, dispute and cross-examine. Words that are true and false come from language. But, the way in which a photo records experience is different.

Daniel BOORSTIN'S book The Image -- cites the graphic revolution and calls attention to the FIERCE ASSAULT ON LANGUAGE made by forms of mechanically reproduced imagery (PHOTOGRAPHS, ADS, POSTERS, PRINTS) that spread unchecked throughout American culture.

New imagery did not merely function as a supplement to language but bid to replace it as our dominent means for construing, understanding and testing reality.

Postman says the new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself.

A picture came to be better in terms of SALES -- instead of worth a thousand words. FOR MANY AMERICANS, SEEING, not reading, BECAME THE BASIS FOR BELIEVING. [Note connection to Pilgrim assertion about verbal being overridden by the visual.]

PSEUDO-EVENT (Boorstin's concept) -- an event specifically staged to be reported -- like press conference, a photo opportunity or Boeing rollout of a new plane. (Boorstin explained that a pseudo-event could be intended to persuade but that it had different logic than that of propaganda. He noted: "Pseudo-events appeal to our duty to be educated, propaganda appeals to our desire to be aroused. While propaganda substitutes opinion for facts, pseudo-events are synthetic facts which move people indirectly, by providing the 'factual' asis on which they are supposed to make up their minds. Propaganda moves them directly by explicitly making judgments for them.")

Telegraph and photo may be the pseudo-context, the structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use -- the use being to amuse. This new group of electronic techniques had called into being a new world -- a peek-a-boo world, where now-this-event then that-event pops into view for a brief moment and then vanishes.

This new peek-a-boo world is without much coherence or sense. It is a world that does not ask us or permit us to do anything. Like a child's game of peek-a-boo, it is entirely self-contained and endlessly entertaining.

5 assertions about TV:

1. TV gave telegraph and photo their most potent expression-- raising interplay of image and instancy to a exquisite and dangerous perfection.

2. TV became the command center of the new epistemology.

3. TV has achieved meta-medium status. It directs our way of knowledge in the world and our knowledge of ways of knowing as well.

4.TV has achieved the status of myth-- which means it is a way of thinking so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is invisible.

5. TV has gradually become our culture. WWe do not doubt the reality of what we see on television. No longer is it the question of whether tv shapes culture or reflects it. This means that we rarely talk about television, only what is on television--that is, its content.

There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this:
The world as given to people through TV seems natural, not bizarre. The loss of the sense of the strange is a sign of adjustment, and the extent to which we have adjusted is a measure of the extent to which we have been altered.

We have now so thoroughly accepted TV's definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to be filled with importance -- and incoherence seems entirely sane.
Regarding this total acceptance without questioning of TV, Postman makes
5 assertions about the influence of TV on culture:

1. TV's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to the earlier typographic way of knowing.

2. TV's conversations promote incoherence and triviality.

3. Serious television is a contradiction in terms.

4. TV speaks in only one persistent voice -- the voice of entertainment.

5. TV is transforming American culture into a single vast arena for show business -- and fears in the end we shall find that delightful and like it just fine -- and that is more Huxlean than Orwellean.

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Updated 2012