The thesis of this chapter concerns the transition between print culture and television culture in America. Postman believes that, when people got their information from the printing press, cultural conversations were rational, sustained, and logical. Now, he says, under the governance of television, America “has become shriveled and absurd.”
This is a claim to which Postman will return repeatedly. McLuhan made a similar point about written culture being rational, and cultures of the image being “primitive.” Postman then amends “primitive” to the more negative and condescending “absurd.”
Postman begins to support this claim with a discussion of a “tribe in western Africa” whose criminal justice system relies heavily on a judge’s memorization of thousands of moral aphorisms or sayings. When a crime is committed, the judge finds an applicable aphorism, and determines a just course of action based on the wisdom of that aphorism. Postman notes that, in an oral culture, aphorisms are an acceptable source of truth or wisdom.
Postman deliberately frames this story about the ambiguous “tribe” to make an analogy. He is beginning to make a point about how media determine our culture, so he starts by describing a culture that uses very different media than 20th century America.
In a print culture like America, however, aphorisms are considered unserious. Postman illustrates this with a hypothetical imagining of a lawyer using aphorisms in a courtroom instead of documented evidence. Because we can print and record ideas, we are not limited by the difficulty of memorization and can therefore rely on much longer texts and accounts to determine truth. If something is written, published, and disseminated, it is more true than if something is simply uttered. Thus, says Postman, media determine our epistemology (theory of knowledge, or what distinguishes knowledge from opinion). In other words, our media determine what we consider to “count” as knowledge and truth.
Postman has already told us that new media and technologies have various impacts on culture—but Postman is perhaps most interested in how media influences our conceptions of knowledge. Postman (we will see) believes intelligence, intellectual seriousness, and rationality are integral to a functional American society. He then connects these virtues to print media, and shows how they are incongruous with visual media.
Postman says that not all epistemologies, or systems of knowledge and truth, are created equal. He says that in America, print culture is declining in favor of “television-based epistemology.” Postman says this shift has resulted in our “getting sillier by the minute.” In other words, since media determine what we consider knowledge, and since our intelligence is a function of our knowledge, our collective intelligence as Americans is being (negatively) impacted by a shift from print to television.
Here Postman is explicit about the value system that informs this book. Crudely rendered, this value system says that print culture is rational and therefore good, and television culture is silly and therefore bad. At the time of this book’s composition, Postman sees what he believes to be the rising of a new, televised, and consequently absurd kind of culture.
This will be the overarching thesis of the entire book, Postman says. He qualifies his claim by noting that print culture—and its advocators—are not gone. In fact he attributes his own lucidity regarding the effect of media to his continued devotion to printed forms of information. He writes, in an especially figurative moment, “Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters.”
Postman’s work in this section is geared towards establishing his own credibility. He is making an argument about the decline of intellect in contemporary culture: this puts him in the tricky position of someone who, despite being a member of that culture, is still capable of lucid, intelligent observations. Thus he insists that although new forms of media create new (and sillier) kinds of content, it is still possible to resist intellectual decline.