Postman opens this chapter by recounting various anecdotes illustrating that American thinking has become trivial. Politicians, writes Postman, are praised for their looks or physique. Televised journalism has led to an increasing emphasis on style and appearance. Advertising has preyed on our decreasing attention spans and made us hungry for entertaining quips rather than substantive information and knowledge.
Postman is setting the scene in this early section. Attention span, the dominance of visual culture, and the adverse effects of advertising are all issues he will deal with at length. Part of the project of the book will be to explain (in historical terms) why the current state of culture looks this way.
Postman goes on to acknowledge that this isn’t even a groundbreaking set of observations: these worries are quite cliché. But, he contends, we have not adequately accounted for the reason culture is headed in this direction. He maintains that we need to keep in mind the relationship between form and content in public discourse. Without certain forms of media, certain contents would not exist. For example, without technologies of image (photography and television), a politician’s or a reporter’s appearance simply could not reach a large audience. Thus, conversations about style and appearance would be effectively absent from the dominant cultural discourse.
Postman’s first pass at his argument gestures at the two most important points that his book makes: put simply, he first contends that the historical story about media deeply affects our ability to understand our place in an increasingly mediated culture. Second, Postman asserts the fundamental relationship between form and content—arguing that the way something is presented affects what is presented.
Here Postman invokes media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who famously argued “the medium is the message.” This means that the content of any medium (a book, television show, radio show, or live speech) will be determined by the form of the media that presents it. Postman believes that McLuhan, like Orwell and Huxley, “spoke in the tradition of prophecy.” Postman was once a student of McLuhan, and he reassures his reader of his immense respect for McLuhan’s thinking, but he proposes a slight alteration to McLuhan’s famous argument. The medium, contends Postman, is the metaphor. Postman believes that media communicate in ways that are indirect—if media strictly delivered “messages,” then people would be better able to see media’s importance to culture.
Postman continues to situate his project in a larger context. He notably calls the work of McLuhan, Orwell, and Huxley “prophecy.” Once again Postman sees his book as part of a lineage of texts not only about history and the present, but also about the future. What’s more, Postman amends McLuhan’s “message” to “metaphor” to emphasize that the way the form of media influences its content can be hard to understand. By categorizing media as metaphors, he strategically implies that media need to be interpreted. Postman thus asserts himself as the kind of interpreter (and perhaps “prophet”) we need to understand media.
Not only do technological media affect their own content, but they also extend their influence outward into the rest of culture, says Postman. Eyeglasses, a technology that improved human sight, are probably in some way to thank for our ambition regarding the human genome project. Eyeglasses told us that the body can be improved through science—gene research is an extension of the same idea. Microscopes told us that there is an invisible, teeming world not accessible to the naked eye, and Postman suggests that psychological insights about the subconscious then grew out of the medium of microscopy. Postman concludes the chapter by saying: “our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.”
Postman paints with broad strokes here. He doesn’t mean to suggest that eyeglasses led directly to the microscope, which led directly to psychoanalysis—he simply means to appeal to a kind of intuitive understanding about the complex web of effects that new technologies have on culture. In other words, nothing happens in a vacuum—when new technologies are introduced to mass culture, mass culture will change (sometimes in unexpected ways). Postman’s point is deliberately general, and he sets himself up to make his claim more specific in the next chapter.