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184 pages, Paperback
First published November 25, 1985
’It is my intention 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….[W]e do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for 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.’Postman alters Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism ‘The media is the message’ to his often repeated ‘the media is the metaphor’ idea, simply meaning that the media offers us a metaphor of our own reality and that everything we see through it pulls with it a large array of implied context and framing of information that is controlled by those who deliver it. Everything we view has been spun, even if unintentionally, to reflect some believed context of our culture. Postman argues that ‘in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself,’ and the unspoken content of media is captured in our minds and grows into our culture through our actions. It has resonance in our culture. ‘Definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.’ For example, we see a character on television that we like and we try and be like that character in our own lives ¹. All news information is somehow framed in a certain light, as is anything we receive through television and broadcast companies. ‘The weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication.’
’A 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…also endlessly entertaining.’We are bombarded by information at all times in a three prong attack on the epistemology of our time: Irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence. Information may be cathartic, but usually most of what we hear doesn’t really relate to our personal lives other than something to talk about, we can’t do much of anything about the information, and has no context to our lives. To further discussion on context, Postman cites Susan Sontag’s work On Photography, where she writes ‘the point of photography is to isolate the image from context, so as to make them visible in a different way… all borders seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated…all that is nessesary is to fram the subject differently.’ Television, as discussed earlier, frames everything in some manner and gives us only a pseudo-context, or a doctored context to make us think a certain way. Television focuses us on the image more so than the information.
“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 warns that we will 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, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
“In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different roder from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that 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--misplace, 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?”
“When Orwell wrote in his famous essay “The Politics of the English Language” that politics has become a matter of “defending the indefensible,” he was assuming that politics would remain a distinct, although corrupted, mode of discourse. His contempt was aimed at those politicians who would use sophisticated versions of the age-old arts of double-think, propaganda and deceit. That the defense of the indefensible would be conducted as a form of amusement did not occur to him. He feared the politician as deceiver, not as entertainer.
But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.
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 "truth" is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant."
“What Orwell feared was 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 that 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.”