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Notes On Amusing Ourselves To Death

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Foreword
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well-known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warned that we would be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
 
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Condensed Notes

Part I

 
Ch 1 The Medium is the Metaphor
  • how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. The ideas that are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.
  • We know enough about language to understand that variations in the structures of languages will result in variations in what may be called "worldview...Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.
  • What is peculiar about such interpositions of media is that their role in directing what we will see or know is so rarely noticed. A person who reads a book or who watches television or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less in what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a watch.
  • Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever "languages" we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as "it" is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
Ch 2: Media as Epistemology
  • television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do. The trouble with such people, the issue is that they do not take television seriously enough. For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is trivial.
  • Epistemology is a complex and often opaque subject concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge. The part of its subject matter that is relevant here is the interest it takes in definitions of truth and the sources from which such definitions come. In particular, I want to show that definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed. I want to discuss how media are implicated in our epistemologies.
  • You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character. That is why, undoubtedly, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as "the investigator" and not by your name. The written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, while the spoken word disappears. That is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) rather than for us merely to tell you that you have and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the "truth." Our oral agreement would be only a rumor. [Kris: He gives examples of how the written word is more credible in domains like law and academia but that the oral tradition had primacy in Socrates time and he colorfully describes Socrates trial to make the point]
  • The point I am leading to, by this and the previous examples, is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing, or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the "truth" is a kind of cultural prejudice.
  • Some ways of truth-telling are better than others and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology have had grave consequences for public life. We are getting sillier by the minute, and that is why it is necessary for me to drive home the point that the weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication.
Lists the skills required to navigate print-based culture:
  1. You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency.
  1. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid.
  1. If you have learned how to understand meanings without being distracted by aesthetics, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. This includes bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called "immunity to eloquence," meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words and the logic of their argument.
    1. In judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when, or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed.
    2. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument.
    3. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images.
Ch 3: Typographic America
  • From its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was dominated by the printed word and oratory based on the printed word, more so than any other society we know of.
  • I do not mean to say that print merely influenced the form of public discourse. That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content. For those readers who may believe that this idea is too "McLuhanesque" for their taste, I offer Karl Marx from The German Ideology. "Is the Iliad possible?" he asks rhetorically, "when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?" Marx understood well that the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience. He did not fully explore the matter himself, and others have taken up the task. I too must try my hand at it, to explore how the press worked as a metaphor and an epistemology to create a serious and rational public conversation, from which we have now been so dramatically separated.
Ch 4: The Typographic Mind
  • language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.
  • It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, and upon its reader to understand the import of what is said. When an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, as authors are not always trustworthy. They may lie, become confused, over-generalize, abuse logic, or even common sense. The reader must come prepared, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. Reading is by nature a serious business, and is also an essentially rational activity.
  • Almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality. The sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage with the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classification, inference-making, and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, and to connect one generalization to another.
  • The printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, as there was no other means, besides the oral tradition, to access public knowledge. Public figures were known largely by their written words, not by their looks or even their oratory skills. It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen on the street. This would have also been the case for the great lawyers, ministers, and scientists of that era. To think about those men was to think about what they had written, to judge them by their public positions, their arguments, and their knowledge as codified in the printed word. You may get some sense of how we are separated from this kind of consciousness by thinking about any of our recent presidents, or even preachers, lawyers, and scientists who are or have recently been public figures. Think of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, most likely a face on a television screen (in Einstein's case, a photograph of a face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.
  • Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.
Ch 5: Peek-a-Boo World
  • The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge's famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use. A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into "one neighborhood," but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.
    • Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a "global village"), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided to you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?"… For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut.
  • The receiver of the news had to provide meaning if they could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. "Knowing the facts" took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them.
  • It is not a new idea that the image and the word have different functions, work at different levels of abstraction, and require different modes of response. Painting is at least three times as old as writing, and the place of imagery in the repertoire of communication instruments was quite well understood in the nineteenth century.
  • As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them. The communications media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with telegraphy and photography at their center, called the peek-a-boo world into existence, but we did not come to live there until 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…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.
  • 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.
  • It is my objective in the rest of this book to make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate, by concrete examples, that television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing; that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase "serious television" is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice - the voice of entertainment.
  • It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.

Part II

 
Ch 6: The Age of Show Business
  • 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 the eye never rests and 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…But 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.
  • Thinking does not translate well on television, a fact that television directors discovered a long time ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. However, television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men with sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to create performances rather than ideas.
  • 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.
Ch 7: “Now…This”
  • Television did not invent the "Now... this" worldview. As I have tried to show, it is the offspring of the intercourse between telegraphy and photography. But it is through television that it has been nurtured and brought to a perverse maturity. For on television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it. In part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, and in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself. Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another.
  • Stated, in its simplest form, is that television restores an old definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. "Credibility" here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter.
  • Television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which, in fact, leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
  • The public has become accustomed to incoherence and has been amused into indifference. This is why Aldous Huxley would not be surprised by the story. In fact, he prophesied its arrival. He believed that it is far more likely that Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley understood, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public that is insensitive to contradiction and numbed by technological distractions.
Ch 8: Shuffle Off to Bethlehem
  • There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
  • The danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows, but that television shows may become the content of religion.
Ch 9: Reach Out and Elect Someone
  • Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether
  • the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial…My major purpose here is to show how it has devastated political discourse.
  • Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama - a mythology, if you will - of handsome people selling, buying, and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.
  • The television commercial has been the primary tool in creating modern methods of presenting political ideas... But commercials disdain exposition, for that takes time and invites argument. It is a very bad commercial indeed that engages the viewer in wondering about the validity of the point being made. That is why most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo-parable as a means of doing their work. Such "parables" as "The Ring Around the Collar," "The Lost Traveler's Checks," and "The Phone Call from the Son Far Away" not only have irrefutable emotional power but, like Biblical parables, are unambiguously didactic. Television commercials are about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales, which is to say, it isn't.
  • This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol, or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves. We look at the television screen and ask, in the same voracious way as the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" We are inclined to vote for those whose personality, family life, and style, as imaged on the screen, give back a better answer than the Queen received
  • Our age is characterized by a "refusal to remember." He cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. The historian Carl Schorske has, in my opinion, circled closer to the truth by noting that the modern mind has grown indifferent to history because history has become useless to it. In other words, it is not obstinacy or ignorance but a sense of irrelevance that leads to the diminution of history…We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis - a theory, a vision, a metaphor - something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context, is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide any. A mirror records only what you are wearing today. It is silent about yesterday.
  • In the age of television, our information environment is completely different from what it was in 1783. We have less to fear from government restraints than from television glut. In fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America. Therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains than where they once were.
  • The fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium that presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment. In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves. Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse
 
Ch 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity
  • the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns. As Dewey wrote elsewhere, we learn by doing. Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.
  • television's principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey. In searching the literature of education, you will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said-Plato and Dewey emphasized this-that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, durably, and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment. Education philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. Indeed, Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which cannot be pleasurable for those, like the young, who are struggling hard to do the opposite — that is, accomodate themselves to the present.
  • they will have learned that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment, and ought to.
Ch 11: The Huxleyan Warning
  • There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first, the Orwellian culture becomes a prison. In the second, the Huxleyan culture becomes a burlesque.
  • What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us by his choice. We watch him by ours. There is no need for wardens, gates, or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; cultural death is a clear possibility.
  • By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future. Those who speak about this matter must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize and oppose than a Huxleyan one. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us... But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture being drained by laughter? I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this matter. Their warnings have customarily been directed against those consciously formulated ideologies that appeal to the matter. worst tendencies in human nature…But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.
  • To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, and to assume that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, plain and simple stupidity. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture, and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history, and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images, and you create a cultural revolution without a vote, without polemics, and without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise, and that technology is the force behind that movement.
 
 

Unabridged Notes

Part I

Ch 1: The Medium Is the Metaphor
[Kris: This chapter reinforces and extends the McLuhan argument that discourse/conversation is tyrannically shaped by our means and technology of communication. We are practically slaves to unconscious incentives and constraints of our mediums (smoke signals don’t lend themselves to philosophical conversations). Postman goes further than McLuhan by arguing that what's implied by our technology shapes our thoughts (”the invention of the watch”)]
  • You will find an argument here that presumes a clearer grasp of the matter than many that have come before. Its value, such as it is, resides in the directness of its perspective, which has its origins in observations made 2,300 years ago by Plato. It is an argument that focuses on the forms of human conversation and postulates that how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. The ideas that are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture. I use the word conversation metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that allow people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. 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 arguments. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were, 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.
  • 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 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. To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television.
  • We know enough about language to understand that variations in the structures of languages will result in variations in what may be called "worldview." How people think about time and space, and about things and processes, will be greatly influenced by the grammatical features of their language. We dare not suppose, therefore, that all human minds are unanimous in understanding how the world is put together. But how much more divergence there is in worldview among different cultures can be imagined when we consider the great number and variety of tools for conversation that go beyond speech. For although culture is a creation of speech, it is recreated anew by every medium of communication - from painting to hieroglyphs to the alphabet to television. Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.
  • As Ernst Cassirer remarked: Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves, man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.
  • What is peculiar about such interpositions of media is that their role in directing what we will see or know is so rarely noticed. A person who reads a book or who watches television or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less in what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a watch. But there are men and women who have noticed these things, especially in our own times. Lewis Mumford, for example, has been one of our great noticers. He is not the sort of man who looks at a clock merely to see what time it is. Not that he lacks interest in the content of clocks, which is of concern to everyone from moment to moment, but he is far more interested in how a clock creates the idea of "moment to moment." He attends to the philosophy of clocks, to clocks as a metaphor, about which our education has had little to say and clock makers nothing at all. "The clock," Mumford has concluded, "is a piece of power machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes." In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God's conception, or nature's. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created. In Mumford's great book Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded. Indeed, as Mumford points out, with the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God's supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
  • The introduction into a culture of a technique such as writing or a clock is not merely an extension of man's power to bind time but a transformation of his way of thinking - and, of course, of the content of his culture. And that is what I mean to say by calling a medium a metaphor.
  • It has been pointed out, for example, that the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century not only made it possible to improve defective vision but suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eyeglasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. I do not think it goes too far to say that there is a link between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth-century text in which Even such an instrument as the microscope, hardly a tool of everyday use, had embedded within it a quite astonishing idea, not about biology but about psychology. By revealing a world hitherto hidden from view, the microscope suggested a possibility about the structure of the mind. If things are not what they seem, if microbes lurk, unseen, on and under our skin, if the invisible controls the visible, then is it not possible that ids and egos and superegos also lurk somewhere unseen? What else is psychoanalysis but a microscope of the mind? Where do our notions of mind come from if not from metaphors generated by our tools? What does it mean to say that someone has an IQ of 126? There are no numbers in people's heads. Intelligence does not have quantity or magnitude, except as we believe that it does. And why do we believe that it does? Because we have tools that imply that this is what the mind is like. Indeed, our tools for thought suggest to us what our bodies are like, as when someone refers to her "biological clock," or when we talk of our "genetic codes," or when we read someone's face like a book, or when our facial expressions telegraph our intentions. When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor. Nature itself does not speak. Neither do our minds or our bodies or, more to the point of this book, our bodies politic. Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever "languages" we find it possible and convenient to employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as "it" is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
 
Ch 2: Media as Epistemology
  • It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must first demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now - generally coherent, serious, and rational - and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.
  • television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. The irony here is that this is what intellectuals and critics are constantly urging television to do. The trouble with such people, the issue is that they do not take television seriously enough. For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is trivial.
  • Epistemology is a complex and often opaque subject concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge. The part of its subject matter that is relevant here is the interest it takes in definitions of truth and the sources from which such definitions come. In particular, I want to show that definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed. I want to discuss how media are implicated in our epistemologies.
  • In the hope of simplifying what I mean by the title of this chapter, media as epistemology, I find it helpful to borrow a word from Northrop Frye, who has made use of a principle he calls resonance. "Through resonance," he writes, "a particular statement in a particular context acquires universal significance."
  • Frye extends the idea of resonance so that it goes beyond phrases and sentences. A character in a play or story, such as Hamlet or Lewis Carroll's Alice, may have resonance. Objects and countries may also have resonance: "The smallest details of the geography of two tiny chopped-up countries, Greece and Israel, have imposed themselves on our consciousness until they have become part of the map of our own imaginative world, whether we have ever seen these countries or not."
  • Judges, lawyers, and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as relevant responses to legal disputes. In this regard, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media metaphor. In a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations, and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance, but not all of it. Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written, word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms, jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge's explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing. This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables other expressions of oral wisdom. The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed.
  • A similar paradox exists in universities, with roughly the same distribution of resonances. That is to say, there are a few residual traditions based on the notion that speech is the primary carrier of truth. However, for the most part, university conceptions of truth are tightly bound to the structure and logic of the printed word. To exemplify this point, I draw here on a personal experience that occurred during a still widely practiced medieval ritual known as a "doctoral oral.”
  • You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify or refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character. That is why, undoubtedly, you have referred to yourself in your thesis as "the investigator" and not by your name. The written word is, by its nature, addressed to the world, not an individual. The written word endures, while the spoken word disappears. That is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking. Moreover, we are sure you would prefer that this commission produce a written statement that you have passed your examination (should you do so) rather than for us merely to tell you that you have and leave it at that. Our written statement would represent the "truth." Our oral agreement would be only a rumor.
  • A third example of the influence of media on our epistemologies can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates…as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers did not regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates' plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech - most often pretentious, superficial, and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophists of fifth-century BC Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near-indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communicating truth.
  • His contemporaries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which "right opinion" was to be both discovered and articulated. To disdain rhetorical rules, to speak one's thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience's intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
  • The point I am leading to, by this and the previous examples, is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing, or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the "truth" is a kind of cultural prejudice.
  • Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by recounting what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely anecdotal, and the last childish. Yet these forms of language are certainly capable of expressing truths about economic relationships, as well as any other relationships, and have indeed been employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonating with different media metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers.
  • We must remember that Galileo merely said that the language of nature is written in mathematics. He did not say everything is. And even the truth about nature need not be expressed in mathematics. For most of human history, the language of nature has been the language of myth and ritual. These forms, one might add, had the virtues of leaving nature unthreatened and of encouraging the belief that human beings are part of it. It hardly befits a people who stand ready to blow up the planet to praise themselves too vigorously for having found the true way to talk about nature.
  • Some ways of truth-telling are better than others and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology have had grave consequences for public life. We are getting sillier by the minute, and that is why it is necessary for me to drive home the point that the weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication.
  • Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation that man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.
  • Since intelligence is primarily defined as one's capacity to grasp the truth of things, it follows that what a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.
  • In a purely oral culture, intelligence is often associated with aphoristic ingenuity, which is the power to invent compact sayings of wide applicability. We are told in First Kings that the wise Solomon knew three thousand proverbs. In a print culture, people with such a talent are thought to be quaint at best and more likely pompous bores. In a purely oral culture, a high value is always placed on the power to memorize.
  • In a print culture, the memorization of a poem, a menu, a law, or most anything else is merely charming.
  • Although the general nature of print intelligence would be known to anyone reading this book, you can arrive at a reasonably detailed definition of it by simply considering what is demanded of you as you read this book. You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid.
  • If you have learned how to understand meanings without being distracted by aesthetics, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. This includes bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called "immunity to eloquence," meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words and the logic of their argument. In judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when, or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images.
  • In a print culture, we are apt to say of people who are not intelligent that we must "draw them pictures" so that they may understand. Intelligence implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a field of concepts and generalizations.
  • To be able to do all of these things, and more, constitutes a primary definition of intelligence in a culture whose notions of truth are organized around the printed word. In the next two chapters, I want to show that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America was such a place, perhaps the most print-oriented culture ever to have existed. In subsequent chapters, I want to show that in the twentieth century, our notions of truth and our ideas of intelligence have changed as a result of new media displacing the old.
Ch 3: Typographic America
  • Franklin describes this sentiment as a unique instance in the history of mankind of modesty in a sect. Modesty is certainly the right word for it, but the statement is extraordinary for other reasons, too. We have here a criticism of the epistemology of the written word worthy of Plato. Moses himself might be interested, although he could hardly approve. The Dunkers came close here to formulating a commandment about religious discourse: "Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print them, lest thou be entrapped by them for all time.”
  • Their deliberations were, in all likelihood, a singular instance in Colonial America of a distrust of the printed word. The Americans, among whom Franklin lived, were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived. Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England, it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas, and social life were embedded in the medium of typography.
  • One significant implication of this situation is that no literary aristocracy emerged in Colonial America. Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people.
  • When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson. "I can give you no conception of my welcome," Dickens wrote to a friend. "There never was a king or emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, entertained at splendid balls and dinners, and waited upon by public bodies of all kinds. If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theater, the whole house rises as one man and the timbers ring again.”
  • From its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was dominated by the printed word and oratory based on the printed word, more so than any other society we know of. This situation was only partly a legacy of the Protestant tradition. As Richard Hofstadter reminds us, America was founded by intellectuals, a rare occurrence in the history of modern nations. "The Founding Fathers," he writes, "were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them skilled in classical learning, who used their extensive reading in history, politics, and law to solve the pressing problems of their time. A society shaped by such men does not easily move in contrary directions. We might even say that America was founded by intellectuals, from whom it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover. Hofstadter has written convincingly of our efforts to "recover," that is to say, of the anti-intellectual strain in American public life, but he concedes that his focus distorts the general picture. It is like writing a history of American business by focusing only on bankruptcies.
  • One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true. However, from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, no radio to hear, no photographic displays to look at, and no records to play. There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse. The resonances of the linear, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere, for example, in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in Democracy in America: "An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he were addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say 'Gentlemen' to the person with whom he is conversing." This odd practice is less a reflection of an American's obstinacy than of his modeling his conversational style on the structure of the printed word. Since the printed word is impersonal and is addressed to an invisible audience, what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind of printed orality.
  • But obviously, I do not mean to say that print merely influenced the form of public discourse. That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content. For those readers who may believe that this idea is too "McLuhanesque" for their taste, I offer Karl Marx from The German Ideology. "Is the Iliad possible?" he asks rhetorically, "when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?" Marx understood well that the press was not merely a machine but a structure for discourse, which both rules out and insists upon certain kinds of content and, inevitably, a certain kind of audience. He did not fully explore the matter himself, and others have taken up the task. I too must try my hand at it, to explore how the press worked as a metaphor and an epistemology to create a serious and rational public conversation, from which we have now been so dramatically separated.
 
Ch 4: The Typographic Mind
  • The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas would then have a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 P.M., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas, and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined. What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? It should be noted, by the way, that Lincoln and Douglas were not presidential candidates; at the time of their encounter in Peoria, they were not even candidates for the United States Senate. But their audiences were not especially concerned with their official status. These were people who regarded such events as essential to their political education, who took them to be an integral part of their social lives, and who were quite accustomed to extended oratorical performances. Typically, at county or state fairs, programs included many speakers, most of whom were allotted three hours for their arguments. And since it was preferred that speakers not go unanswered, their opponents were allotted an equal length of time. (One might add that the speakers were not always men. At one fair lasting several days in Springfield, "Each evening a woman [lectured] in the courtroom on 'Woman's Influence in the Great Progressive Movements of the Day.")
  • Its attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally.
  • It is hard to imagine the current occupant of the White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience. People of a television culture need "plain language" both aurally and visually, and will even go so far as to require it in some circumstances by law. The Gettysburg Address would probably have been largely incomprehensible to a 1985 audience.
  • I chose the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a starting point for this chapter not only because they were the preeminent example of political discourse in the mid-nineteenth century but also because they illustrate the power of typography to control the character of that discourse. Both the speakers and their audience were habituated to a kind of oratory that may be described as literary. For all of the hoopla and socializing surrounding the event, the speakers had little to offer, and audiences little to expect, but language. And the language that was offered was clearly modeled on the style of the written word. To anyone who has read what Lincoln and Douglas said, this is obvious from beginning to end. The debates opened, in fact, with Douglas making the following introduction, highly characteristic of everything that was said afterward: Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles in issue between those parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us. This language is pure print. That the occasion required it to be spoken aloud cannot obscure that fact. And that the audience was able to process it through the ear is remarkable only to people whose culture no longer resonates powerfully with the printed word. Not only did Lincoln and Douglas write all their speeches in advance, but they also planned their rebuttals in writing. Even the spontaneous interactions between the speakers were expressed in a sentence structure, sentence length, and rhetorical organization which took their form from writing. To be sure, there were elements of pure orality in their presentations. After all, neither speaker was indifferent to the moods of the audiences. Nonetheless, the resonance of typography was ever-present. Here was argument and counterargument, claim and counterclaim, criticism of relevant texts, the most careful scrutiny of the previously uttered sentences of one's opponent. In short, the Lincoln-Douglas debates may be described as expository prose lifted whole from the printed page. That is the meaning of Douglas' reproach to the audience. He claimed that his appeal was to understanding and not to passion, as if the audience were to be silent, reflective readers, and his language the text which they must ponder.
  • Which brings us, of course, to the questions: What are the implications for public discourse of a written or typographic metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favor?
  • Whenever language is the principal medium of communication - especially language controlled by the rigors of print - an idea, a fact, or a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, or the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one's thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences or spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, or an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.
  • It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, and upon its reader to understand the import of what is said. When an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, as authors are not always trustworthy. They may lie, become confused, over-generalize, abuse logic, or even common sense. The reader must come prepared, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. Reading is by nature a serious business, and is also an essentially rational activity.
  • Almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality. The sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage with the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classification, inference-making, and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, and to connect one generalization to another. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, religious thought and institutions in America were dominated by an austere, learned, and intellectual form of discourse that is largely absent from religious life today. No clearer example of the difference between earlier and modern forms of public discourse can be found than in the contrast between the theological arguments of Jonathan Edwards and those of, say, Jerry Falwell, or Billy Graham, or Oral Roberts. The formidable content of Edwards' theology must inevitably engage the intellect. If there is such content to the theology of the television evangelicals, they have not yet made it known.
  • In a print-based culture, lawyers tended to be well-educated, devoted to reason, and capable of impressive expositional argument. It is a matter frequently overlooked in histories of America that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the legal profession represented "a sort of privileged body in the scale of intellect," as Tocqueville remarked.
  • The great figures of American jurisprudence - John Marshall, Joseph Story, James Kent, David Hoffman, William Wirt, and Daniel Webster - were models of intellectual elegance and devotion to rationality and scholarship. They believed that democracy, for all of its obvious virtues, posed the danger of releasing undisciplined individualism. Their aspiration was to save civilization in America by "creating a rationality for the law." As a consequence of this exalted view, they believed that law must not be merely a learned profession but a liberal one. The famous law professor Job Tyson argued that a lawyer must be familiar with the works of Seneca, Cicero, and Plato. George Sharswood, perhaps envisioning the degraded state of legal education in the twentieth century, remarked in 1854 that reading law exclusively would damage the mind, "shackle it to the technicalities with which it has become familiar, and disable it from taking enlarged and comprehensive views even of topics falling within its compass.”
  • To an extent difficult to imagine today, earlier Americans were familiar not only with the great legal issues of their time but even with the language famous lawyers had used to argue their cases. This was especially true of Daniel Webster, and it was only natural that Stephen Vincent Benét would have chosen Daniel Webster to contend with the Devil in his famous short story. How could the Devil triumph over a man whose language, described by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, had the following characteristics? ... his clearness and downright simplicity of statement, his vast comprehensiveness of topics, his fertility in illustrations drawn from practical sources; his keen analysis, and suggestion of difficulties; his power of disentangling a complicated proposition, and resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common minds; his vigor in generalizations, planting his own arguments behind the whole battery of his opponents; his wariness and caution not to betray himself by heat into untenable positions, or to spread his forces over useless ground." I quote this in full because it is the best nineteenth-century description I know of the character of discourse expected of one whose mind is formed by the printed word.
  • Such an ideal went far beyond the legal profession or the ministry in its influence. Even in the everyday world of commerce, the resonances of rational, typographic discourse could be found. If we take advertising to be the voice of commerce, then its history clearly shows that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those with products to sell assumed that their customers were not unlike Daniel Webster: literate, rational, and analytical.
  • Advertising, as Stephen Douglas once said, was intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This does not mean that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question "Is this true or false?" is relevant. In the 1890s, that context was shattered, first by the massive intrusion of illustrations and photographs, then by the non-propositional use of language. For example, in the 1890s, advertisers adopted the technique of using slogans. Presbrey contends that modern advertising can be said to begin with the use of two such slogans: "You press the button; we do the rest" and "See that hump?" At about the same time, jingles started to be used, and in 1892, Procter and Gamble invited the public to submit rhymes to advertise Ivory Soap. In 1896, H-O employed, for the first time, a picture of a baby in a high chair, the bowl of cereal before him, his spoon in hand, his face ecstatic. By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. Reason had to move itself to other arenas.
  • The printed word had a monopoly on both attention and intellect, as there was no other means, besides the oral tradition, to access public knowledge. Public figures were known largely by their written words, not by their looks or even their oratory skills. It is quite likely that most of the first fifteen presidents of the United States would not have been recognized had they passed the average citizen on the street. This would have also been the case for the great lawyers, ministers, and scientists of that era. To think about those men was to think about what they had written, to judge them by their public positions, their arguments, and their knowledge as codified in the printed word. You may get some sense of how we are separated from this kind of consciousness by thinking about any of our recent presidents, or even preachers, lawyers, and scientists who are or have recently been public figures. Think of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, most likely a face on a television screen (in Einstein's case, a photograph of a face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.
  • Almost anywhere one looks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one finds the resonances of the printed word and, in particular, its inextricable relationship to all forms of public expression. It may be true, as Charles Beard wrote, that the primary motivation of the writers of the United States Constitution was the protection of their economic interests. But it is also true that they assumed that participation in public life required the capacity to negotiate the printed word. To them, mature citizenship was not conceivable without sophisticated literacy, which is why the voting age in most states was set at twenty-one, and why Jefferson saw universal education as America's best hope. And that is also why, as Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager have pointed out, the voting restrictions against those who owned no property were frequently overlooked, but not one's inability to read.
  • Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.
 
Ch 5: Peek-a-Boo World
  • But until the 1840s, information could move only as fast as a human being could carry it; to be precise, only as fast as a train could travel, which, to be even more precise, meant about thirty-five miles per hour. In the face of such a limitation, the development of America as a national community was retarded. In the 1840s, America was still a composite of regions, each conversing in its own ways, addressing its own interests. A continentwide conversation was not yet possible.
  • Telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that it would make "one neighborhood of the whole country." It destroyed the prevailing definition of information and, in doing so, gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden, "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.” Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct. He grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of that conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to. The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. These demons of discourse 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. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a "thing" that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.
  • The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge's famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use. A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into "one neighborhood," but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.
    • Since we live today in just such a neighborhood (now sometimes called a "global village"), you may get a sense of what is meant by context-free information by asking yourself the following question: How often does it occur that information provided to you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve? For most of us, news of the weather will sometimes have such consequences; for investors, news of the stock market; perhaps an occasional story about a crime will do it, if by chance the crime occurred near where you live or involved someone you know. But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. 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 information glut.
  • The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: its language was the language of headlines - sensational, fragmented, and impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement and forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each "headline" stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide meaning if they could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. "Knowing the facts" took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing lots of things, not knowing about them.
  • It is not a new idea that the image and the word have different functions, work at different levels of abstraction, and require different modes of response. Painting is at least three times as old as writing, and the place of imagery in the repertoire of communication instruments was quite well understood in the nineteenth century. What was new in the mid-nineteenth century was the sudden and massive intrusion of the photograph and other iconographs into the symbolic environment. This event is what Daniel Boorstin, in his pioneering book The Image, calls "the graphic revolution." By this phrase, Boorstin means to call attention to the fierce assault on language made by forms of mechanically reproduced imagery that spread unchecked throughout American culture - photographs, prints, posters, drawings, and advertisements. I choose the word "assault" deliberately here to amplify the point implied in Boorstin's "graphic revolution." 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. What Boorstin implies about the graphic revolution, I wish to make explicit here: The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself. First in billboards, posters, and advertisements, and later in such "news" magazines and papers as Life, Look, the New York Daily Mirror, and Daily News, the picture forced exposition into the background and, in some instances, obliterated it altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, advertisers and newspapermen had discovered that a picture was only worth a thousand words but, where sales were concerned, was better. For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing.
  • The crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion in America at just the point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact. This coincidence suggests that the new technologies had turned the age-old problem of information on its head: Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. The crossword puzzle is one such pseudo-context; the cocktail party is another; the radio quiz shows of the 1930s and 1940s, and the modern television game show are still others; and the ultimate, perhaps, is the wildly successful "Trivial Pursuit." In one form or another, each of these supplies an answer to the question, "What am I to do with all these disconnected facts?" And in one form or another, the answer is the same: Why not use them for diversion? For entertainment? To amuse yourself in a game?
  • Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques calls 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. Of course, there is nothing wrong with playing peek-a-boo. And there is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them. The communications media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with telegraphy and photography at their center, called the peek-a-boo world into existence, but we did not come to live there until 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. We are by now well into a second generation of children for whom television has been their first and most accessible teacher and for many, their most reliable companion and friend. To put it plainly, television is the command center of the new epistemology. There is no audience so young that it is barred from television. There is no poverty so abject that it must forgo television. There is no education so exalted that it is not modified by television. And most importantly, 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.
  • There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television 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 changed. 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. And if some of our institutions seem not to fit the template of the times, why is it they and not the template that seem to us disordered and strange? It is my objective in the rest of this book to make the epistemology of television visible again. I will try to demonstrate, by concrete examples, that television's way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography's way of knowing; that television's conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase "serious television" is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice - the voice of entertainment. Beyond that, I will try to demonstrate that, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms to enter the great television conversation. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.

Part II

Ch 6: The Age of Show Business
  • A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. Medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates. Of course, like the brain itself, every technology has an inherent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral.
  • Not very likely. Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold. The printing press, for example, had a clear bias toward being used as a linguistic medium... everything about its technical possibilities led in that direction. One might even say it was invented for that purpose…The technology of television has a bias as well.
  • In watching American television, one is reminded of George Bernard Shaw's remark upon 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 the eye never rests and 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. Of course, to say that television is entertaining is merely banal. Such a fact is hardly threatening to a culture, not even worth writing a book about. It may even be a reason for rejoicing. But 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, and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.
  • "good television" has little to do with what is "good" exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial images look like.
  • I would like to illustrate this point by offering the case of the eighty-minute discussion provided by the ABC network on November 20, 1983, following its controversial movie The Day After:
    • The program began with Ted Koppel, the master of ceremonies, so to speak, indicating that what followed was not intended to be a debate but a discussion. And so, those interested in philosophies of discourse had an excellent opportunity to observe what serious television means by the word "discussion." Here is what it means: Each of the six men was given approximately five minutes to say something about the subject. However, there was no agreement on exactly what the subject was, and no one felt obliged to respond to anything anyone else said. In fact, it would have been difficult to do so since the participants were called upon seriatim, as if they were finalists in a beauty contest, each being given his share of minutes in front of the camera. Thus, if Mr. Wiesel, who was called upon last, had a response to Mr. Buckley, who was called upon first, there would have been four commentaries in between, occupying about twenty minutes, so that the audience (if not Mr. Wiesel himself) would have had difficulty remembering the argument that prompted his response. In fact, the participants, most of whom were no strangers to television, largely avoided addressing each other's points. They used their initial minutes and then their subsequent ones to intimate their position or give an impression. Dr. Kissinger, for example, seemed intent on making viewers feel sorry that he was no longer their Secretary of State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, proposals he had once made, and negotiations he had once conducted. Mr. McNamara informed the audience that he had eaten lunch in Germany that very afternoon and went on to say that he had at least fifteen proposals to reduce nuclear arms. One would have thought that the discussion would turn on this issue, but the others seemed about as interested in it as they were in what he had for lunch in Germany. (Later, he took the initiative to mention three of his proposals, but they were not discussed.) Elie Wiesel, in a series of quasi-parables and paradoxes, stressed the tragic nature of the human condition, but because he did not have the time to provide a context for his remarks, he seemed quixotic and confused, conveying an impression of an itinerant rabbi who has wandered into a coven of Gentiles.
      In other words, this was no discussion as we normally use the word. Even when the "discussion" period began, there were no arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, no explanations, no elaborations, no definitions. Carl Sagan made, in my opinion, the most coherent statement - a four-minute rationale for a nuclear freeze - but it contained at least two questionable assumptions and was not carefully examined. Apparently, no one wanted to take time from his own few minutes to call attention to someone else's. Mr. Koppel, for his part, felt obliged to keep the "show" moving, and though he occasionally pursued what he discerned as a line of thought, he was more concerned with giving each man his fair allotment of time.
  • However, it is not just time constraints that cause fragmented and discontinuous language. When a television show is in progress, it is almost unacceptable to say, "Let me think about that," "I don't know," "What do you mean when you say...?" or "From what sources does your information come?" This type of discourse not only slows down the pace of the show but also creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of completion. It tends to reveal people in the process of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not translate well on television, a fact that television directors discovered a long time ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. However, television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men with sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to create performances rather than ideas. This is why the eighty minutes were very entertaining, in the way of a Samuel Beckett play: The intimations of gravity hung heavy, the meaning passed all understanding. The performances, of course, were highly professional. Sagan abandoned the turtle-neck sweater in which he starred when he did Cosmos. He even had his hair cut for the event. His role was that of the logical scientist speaking on behalf of the planet. It is doubtful that Paul Newman could have done better in the role, although Leonard Nimoy might have. Scowcroft was suitably military in his bearing-terse and distant, the unbreakable defender of national security. Kissinger, as always, was superb in the part of the knowledgeable world statesman, weary of the sheer responsibility of keeping disaster at bay. Koppel played the part of a moderator to perfection, pretending, as it were, that he was sorting out ideas while, in fact, he was merely directing the performances. In the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection.
  • 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 they are adjuncts 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 the 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, boardrooms, churches, and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other.
  • Prior to the 1984 presidential elections, the two candidates faced each other on television in what were called "debates." These events were not at all like the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything else that goes by that name. Each candidate was given five minutes to address questions such as "What is (or would be) your policy in Central America?" His opposite number was then given one minute for a rebuttal. In such circumstances, complexity, documentation, and logic could play no role, and, indeed, on several occasions, syntax itself was abandoned entirely. It does not matter. The men were less concerned with giving arguments than with "giving off" impressions, which is what television does best. Post-debate commentary largely avoided any evaluation of the candidates' ideas, since there were none to evaluate. Instead, the debates were conceived as boxing matches, with the relevant question being, "Who KO'd whom?" The answer was determined by the "style" of the men - how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners. In the second debate, President Reagan got off a great one-liner when asked a question about his age. The following day, several newspapers indicated that he had KO'd Fritz with his joke. Thus, the leader of the free world is chosen by the people in the Age of Television.
  • The demarcation line between what is show business and what is not becomes harder to see with each passing day. Our priests and presidents, our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need to worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship.
 
Ch 7: “Now…This”
  • This phrase, if that's what it may be called, adds to our grammar a new part of speech: a conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite - separates everything from everything. As such, it serves as a compact metaphor for the discontinuities in so much that passes for public discourse in present-day America. "Now... this" is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly - for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening - that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, "Now this." The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately forty-five seconds), that you must not be morbidly preoccupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial. Television did not invent the "Now... this" worldview. As I have tried to show, it is the offspring of the intercourse between telegraphy and photography. But it is through television that it has been nurtured and brought to a perverse maturity. For on television, nearly every half hour is a discrete event, separated in content, context, and emotional texture from what precedes and follows it. In part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, and in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself. Viewers are rarely required to carry over any thought or feeling from one parcel of time to another. Of course, in television's presentation of the "news of the day," we may see the "Now... this" mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, consequences, value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.
  • Viewers do not like looking at the performer. It also shows that viewers do not believe the performer, and that he or she lacks credibility. In the case of a theatrical performance, we have a sense of what that implies: The actor does not persuade the audience that he or she is the character being portrayed. But what does lack of credibility imply in the case of a news show?
  • The truthfulness of a report depends largely on the credibility of the newscaster. In ancient times, there was a tradition of banishing or killing the messenger who brought bad news. Does the television news show, in a strange way, revive this tradition? Do we reject those who bring us news we don't want to hear simply because we don't like the person delivering it?
  • Stated, in its simplest form, is that television restores an old definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. "Credibility" here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigors of reality testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability, or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter. This is a matter of considerable importance, for it goes beyond the question of how truth is perceived on television news shows. If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.
  • All television news programs begin, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar, which fact I have taken as evidence for the dissolution of lines of demarcation between serious public discourse and entertainment. What does music have to do with the news? Music is there as a frame for the program. The viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about: that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.
  • We have become so accustomed to its discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who, having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable, goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King; in other words, "Now... this." One can hardly overestimate the damage that such juxtapositions do to our sense of the world as a serious place. The damage is especially massive to youthful viewers who depend so much on television for their clues as to how to respond to the world. In watching television news, they, more than any other segment of the audience, are drawn into an epistemology based on the assumption that all reports of cruelty and death are greatly exaggerated and, in any case, not to be taken seriously or responded to sanely. I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anti-communication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence, and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville. For those who think I am here guilty of hyperbole, I offer the following description of television news by Robert MacNeil, executive editor and co-anchor of the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. The idea, he writes, "is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required... to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time." He goes on to say that the assumptions controlling a news show are "that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances and visual stimulation are a substitute for thought, and that verbiage is dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message. Precision is an anachronism." Robert MacNeil has more reason than most to give testimony about the television news show as a vaudeville act. The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour is an unusual and gracious attempt to bring to television some of the elements of typographic discourse. The program abjures visual stimulation, consists largely of extended explanations of events and in-depth interviews (which even there means only five to ten minutes), limits the number of stories covered, and emphasizes background and coherence. But television has exacted its price for MacNeil's rejection of a show business format. By television's standards, the audience is minuscule, the program is confined to public television stations, and it is a good guess that the combined salary of MacNeil and Lehrer is one-fifth of Dan Rather's or Tom Brokaw's.
  • Television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information - misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information - information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which, in fact, leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?
  • My point is that we are now so thoroughly adjusted to the "Now... this" world of news - a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, the future, or other events - that all assumptions of coherence have vanished. And so, perforce, has contradiction. In the context of no context, so to speak, it simply disappears. And in its absence, what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or entertaining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public's indifference. There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much or cares.
  • The public has become accustomed to incoherence and has been amused into indifference. This is why Aldous Huxley would not be surprised by the story. In fact, he prophesied its arrival. He believed that it is far more likely that Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley understood, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public that is insensitive to contradiction and numbed by technological distractions.
Ch 8: Shuffle Off to Bethlehem
  • There are currently thirty-five television stations owned and operated by religious organizations, but every television station features religious programming of some sort. To prepare myself for writing this chapter, I watched forty-two hours of television's version of religion, mostly shows by Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson. However, forty-two hours were entirely unnecessary. Five hours would have provided me with all the conclusions, of which there are two, that can be fairly drawn. The first conclusion is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented quite simply and without apology as entertainment. Everything that makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is the star, and God comes out as second banana.
  • Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible. Or, to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have assumed that what had formerly been done in a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of people to whom television gives them access.
    • "Television," Billy Graham has written, "is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my prime-time 'specials' is now carried by nearly 300 stations across the U.S. and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime." To this, Pat Robertson adds: "To say that the church shouldn't be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change.... It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America."
      This is gross technological naivete. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the message is experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus' time, we may assume that its social and psychological meaning is different, as well.
      To come to the point, there are several characteristics of television and its surroundings that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible. The first has to do with the fact that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, has a religious aura. Our conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watching a religious television program.
      If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience.
  • Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, and is so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds, that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is always aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different, secular event on the screen - a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to and immediately following most religious programs, there are commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Both the history and the ever-present possibilities of the television screen work against the idea that introspection or spiritual transcendence is desirable in its presence..
  • Modern methods of marketing are abundantly used, such as offering free pamphlets, Bibles, and gifts. In Jerry Falwell's case, he even offers two free "Jesus First" pins. The preachers are forthright about how they control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings. You will wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have in gaining access to heaven. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: "You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want." You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want, only what they need. But television is not well-suited to offering people what they need. It is "user-friendly." It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.
  • There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
  • The danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows, but that television shows may become the content of religion.
Ch 9: Reach Out and Elect Someone
  • If politics were like a sporting event, there would be several virtues to attach to its name: clarity, honesty, and excellence. But what virtues attach to politics if Ronald Reagan is right? Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether. And what the other matter is can be expressed in one word: advertising. In Joe McGinnis' book about Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968, The Selling of the President, he said much of what needs to be said about politics and advertising, both in his title and in the book. But not quite all. For though the selling of a President is an astonishing and degrading thing, it is only part of a larger point: In America, the fundamental metaphor for political discourse is the television commercial…My major purpose here is to show how it has devastated political discourse.
  • To be rationally considered, any claim - commercial or otherwise - must be made in language. More precisely, it must take the form of a proposition, for that is the universe of discourse from which such words as "true" and "false" come. If that universe of discourse is discarded, then the application of empirical tests, logical analysis, or any of the other instruments of reason is impotent. The move away from the use of propositions in commercial advertising began at the end of the nineteenth century. But it was not until the 1950s that the television commercial made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions. The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. Today, on television commercials, propositions are as scarce as unattractive people. The truth or falsity of an advertiser's claim is simply not an issue. A McDonald's commercial, for example, is not a series of testable, logically ordered assertions. It is a drama - a mythology, if you will - of handsome people selling, buying, and eating hamburgers, and being driven to near ecstasy by their good fortune. No claims are made, except those the viewer projects onto or infers from the drama. One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it.
  • The television commercial has been the primary tool in creating modern methods of presenting political ideas. It has accomplished this in two ways. The first is by requiring its form to be used in political campaigns. It is not necessary to say much about this method. Everyone has noticed and worried to varying degrees about it, including former New York City mayor John Lindsay, who has proposed that political "commercials" be prohibited. Even television commentators have brought it to our attention, as Bill Moyers did in The Thirty-second President, a documentary in his excellent television series A Walk Through the 20th Century.
  • The second method by which television commercials shape political discourse is through their sheer volume. Because television commercials are the most prevalent form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accept them as a normal and plausible form of discourse. By "philosophy," I mean that television commercials embed certain assumptions about the nature of communication that run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word. For one thing, commercials insist on an unprecedented brevity of expression, even instancy. A sixty-second commercial is prolix; thirty seconds is longer than most; fifteen to twenty seconds is about average. This is a brash and startling structure for communication, since commercials always address themselves to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus, commercials are not merely therapy, but instant therapy. Indeed, they put forward a psychological theory with unique axioms: that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques, and chemistry. This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent, and would appear so to anyone hearing or reading it. But commercials disdain exposition, for that takes time and invites argument. It is a very bad commercial indeed that engages the viewer in wondering about the validity of the point being made. That is why most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo-parable as a means of doing their work. Such "parables" as "The Ring Around the Collar," "The Lost Traveler's Checks," and "The Phone Call from the Son Far Away" not only have irrefutable emotional power but, like Biblical parables, are unambiguously didactic. Television commercials are about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales, which is to say, it isn't. Which is to say further, it is about how one ought to live one's life. Moreover, commercials have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught. Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; and that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.
  • To understand how image politics works on television, we may use as an entry point the well-known commercial from which this chapter takes the first half of its title. I refer to the Bell Telephone romances, created by Mr. Steve Horn, in which we are urged to "Reach Out and Touch Someone." The "someone" is usually a relative who lives in Denver, Los Angeles, or Atlanta - in any case, very far from where we are, and who, in a good year, we will be lucky to see on Thanksgiving Day. The "someone" used to play a daily and vital role in our lives; that is to say, used to be a member of the family. Though American culture stands vigorously opposed to the idea of family, there nonetheless still exists a residual nag that something essential to our lives is lost when we give it up. Enter Mr. Horn's commercials. These are thirty-second homilies concerned with providing a new definition of intimacy in which the telephone wire will take the place of old-fashioned co-presence. Even further, these commercials intimate a new conception of family cohesion for a nation of kinsmen who have been split asunder by automobiles, jet aircraft, and other instruments of family suicide. In analyzing these commercials, Jay Rosen makes the following observation: "Horn isn't interested in saying anything, he has no message to get across. His goal is not to provide information about Bell, but to somehow bring out from the broken ties of millions of American lives a feeling which might focus on the telephone... Horn does not express himself. You do not express yourself. Horn expresses you." This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol, or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves. In the shift from party politics to television politics, the same goal is sought. We are not permitted to know who is best at being President, Governor, or Senator, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent. We look at the television screen and ask, in the same voracious way as the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" We are inclined to vote for those whose personality, family life, and style, as imaged on the screen, give back a better answer than the Queen received. As Xenophanes remarked twenty-five centuries ago, men always make their gods in their own image. But to this, television politics has added a new wrinkle: Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.
  • Just as the television commercial empties itself of authentic product information so that it can do its psychological work, image politics empties itself of authentic political substance for the same reason.
  • But television is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium. Its grammar, so to speak, permits no access to the past... In the Age of Show Business and image politics, political discourse is emptied not only of ideological content but of historical content as well.
  • Our age is characterized by a "refusal to remember." He cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. The historian Carl Schorske has, in my opinion, circled closer to the truth by noting that the modern mind has grown indifferent to history because history has become useless to it. In other words, it is not obstinacy or ignorance but a sense of irrelevance that leads to the diminution of history. Television's Bill Moyers inches still closer when he says, "I worry that my own business... helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs.... We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years." Terence Moran, I believe, lands on the target in saying that with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to a historical perspective. In the absence of continuity and context, he says, "bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole." We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis - a theory, a vision, a metaphor - something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context, is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide any. A mirror records only what you are wearing today. It is silent about yesterday.
  • Orwell was, in effect, addressing himself to a problem of the Age of Print - in fact, to the same problem addressed by the men who wrote the United States Constitution. The Constitution was composed at a time when most free men had access to their communities through a leaflet, a newspaper, or the spoken word. They were quite well positioned to share their political ideas with each other in forms and contexts over which they had competent control. Therefore, their greatest worry was the possibility of government tyranny. The Bill of Rights is largely a prescription for preventing the government from restricting the flow of information and ideas. But the Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by the government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which now controls the flow of public discourse in America through television.
  • In the age of television, our information environment is completely different from what it was in 1783. We have less to fear from government restraints than from television glut. In fact, we have no way of protecting ourselves from information disseminated by corporate America. Therefore, the battles for liberty must be fought on different terrains than where they once were. For example, I would venture to say that the traditional civil libertarian opposition to the banning of books from school libraries and from school curricula is now largely irrelevant. Such acts of censorship are annoying, of course, and must be opposed. But they are trivial. Even worse, they are distracting in that they divert civil libertarians from confronting those questions that have to do with the claims of new technologies. To put it plainly, a student's freedom to read is not seriously injured by someone's banning a book on Long Island or in any other place. But as Gerbner suggests, television clearly does impair the student's freedom to read, and it does so with innocent hands, so to speak. Television does not ban books; it simply displaces them. The fight against censorship is a nineteenth-century issue which was largely won in the twentieth. What we are confronted with now is the problem posed by the economic and symbolic structure of television. Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium that presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment. In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves. Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent. But most of them could not have even hoped for a situation in which the masses would ignore that which does not amuse. That is why tyrants have always relied, and still do, on censorship. Censorship, after all, is the tribute tyrants pay to the assumption that a public knows the difference between serious discourse and entertainment - and cares. How delighted all the kings, czars, and führers of the past (and commissars of the present) would be to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourse takes the form of a jest.
 
Ch 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity
  • Moreover, it is important to add that whether or not Sesame Street teaches children their letters and numbers is entirely irrelevant. We may take John Dewey's observation as our guide here that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning. As he wrote in "Experience and Education", "Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes... may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history.... For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future." In other words, the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns. As Dewey wrote elsewhere, we learn by doing. Television educates by teaching children to do what television-viewing requires of them. And that is as precisely remote from what a classroom requires of them as reading a book is from watching a stage show.
  • I think it is accurate to call television a curriculum. As I understand the word, a curriculum is a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train, or cultivate the mind and character of youth. Television, of course, does exactly that and does it relentlessly. In so doing, it competes successfully with the school curriculum. By which I mean, it damn near obliterates it. Having devoted an earlier book, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, to a detailed examination of the antagonistic nature of the two curriculums-television and school-I will not burden the reader or myself with a repetition of that analysis. But I would like to recall two points that I feel I did not express forcefully enough in that book and that happen to be central to this one. I refer, first, to the fact that television's principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey. In searching the literature of education, you will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said-Plato and Dewey emphasized this-that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, durably, and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment. Education philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. Indeed, Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which cannot be pleasurable for those, like the young, who are struggling hard to do the opposite — that is, accomodate themselves to the present.
  • The Voyage of the Mimi, in other words, spent $3.65 million for the purpose of using media in exactly the manner that media merchants want them to be used - mindlessly and invisibly, as if media themselves have no epistemological or political agenda. And, in the end, what will the students have learned? They will, to be sure, have learned something about whales, perhaps about navigation and map reading, most of which they could have learned just as well by other means. Mainly, they will have learned that learning is a form of entertainment or, more precisely, that anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment, and ought to. And they will not rebel if their English teacher asks them to learn the eight parts of speech through the medium of rock music, or if their social studies teacher sings to them the facts about the War of 1812, or if their physics comes to them on cookies and T-shirts. Indeed, they will expect it and thus will be well prepared to receive their politics, religion, news, and commerce in the same delightful way.
Ch 11: The Huxleyan Warning
  • There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first, the Orwellian culture becomes a prison. In the second, the Huxleyan culture becomes a burlesque. No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described accurately in his parables. If one were to read both 1984 and Animal Farm, and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, one would have a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control as it currently operates in scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive. What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us by his choice. We watch him by ours. There is no need for wardens, gates, or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; cultural death is a clear possibility.
  • By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future. Those who speak about this matter must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize and oppose than a Huxleyan one. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us... But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture being drained by laughter? I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this matter. Their warnings have customarily been directed against those consciously formulated ideologies that appeal to the matter. worst tendencies in human nature…But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.
  • To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, and to assume that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, plain and simple stupidity. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture, and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history, and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images, and you create a cultural revolution without a vote, without polemics, and without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise, and that technology is the force behind that movement. Thus, there are nearly insurmountable difficulties for anyone who has written such a book as this and who wishes to end it with some remedies for the affliction. In the first place, not everyone believes a cure is needed, and in the second, there probably isn't any.
  • Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most poorly when it co-opts serious modes of discourse - news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion - and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health. 60 Minutes, Eye-Witness News, and Sesame Street are.
  • What I suggest as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested as well. And I can do no better than he did. He believed, along with H.G. Wells, that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he continuously wrote about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. In the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.