This chapter begins by suggesting that television is the enemy of capitalism. Capitalism relies on the ability of consumers to choose the product that best addresses their needs. Postman says that “Indeed, we may go this far: The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products.” Therefore advertising no longer concerns what consumers know about products, but rather what advertisers know about “the market.”
Postman here makes a claim that might sound strange to 21st century readers. Postman is writing in the 1980s, when the Cold War is still very much alive in American thinking, and Communism still seems to be a kind of ultimate threat to American ways of life. Thus, by making television the enemy of capitalism, Postman makes an argument that would have held greater rhetorical force for his readers than for contemporary ones.
Postman calls television advertisements “instant therapy.” In the span of 15 to 20 seconds, the viewer feels as though his or her needs have been addressed—and that feeling is good enough for American consumers raised in the age of show business.
Although Postman considers television to be very damaging, he is careful to acknowledge that it is also thoroughly enjoyable. It may be bad for us to watch television, but it feels good—and this is one of the great dangers of entertainment culture.
Television advertising also has profound effects on politics. Consumers “choose” their politician based on how his appearance on television makes them feel. Slogans and symbols become of central importance. This, for Postman, is a direct result of television culture.
According to Postman, television even threatens our democracy itself. We cannot be informed voters in an entertainment culture, because we are too distracted by images, appearances, and slogans. (This prediction, at least, seems to have been validated by the present.)
What’s more, our relationship with our own history has changed since the rise of television. Because television is a medium of instantaneousness and presence, Americans no longer have a sense of themselves as strongly or causally connected to the past.
Postman gives us yet another reason to pay very close attention to his claims about the history of media: because history itself is in fact one of the many things jeopardized by new visual technologies.
This is Orwell’s mistake, says Postman: failing to recognize that the government would not be the ones responsible for the restriction of information and the death of free print, but that citizens would be. For Orwell, freedom of language and thought was sacred, and needed to be protected from the government. But Postman says that the real threat to free speech and thought is television.
Postman once again engages rhetoric that would have been more effective among a 1980s American audience: the enemy, so to speak, is within us. No one is more capable of restricting our rights to freedom of speech and expression than we ourselves are.