Postman opens the chapter with a discussion of how the invention of the telegraph marked a fundamental shift in American culture. “The telegraph made a three-pronged attack on typography's definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” The telegraph, says Postman, made non-contextualized information acceptable. The telegraph, for the first time (says Postman) made information into a pre-packaged, easily-digestible commodity.
We didn’t move directly from print culture to television culture, and because Postman believes that understanding media requires understanding a history of its development, he now tracks what he sees as the major milestones in the movement away from print culture and towards a culture of the image.
What’s more, since the telegraph defeated the problem of disseminating information across vast spaces, it also introduced geographically irrelevant (in Postman’s understanding) information into cultural dialogue. He says that “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.”
Postman’s underlying assumption in this section is that information about events geographically remote from us does not have real relevance to our lives. Our culture today, however, has only gotten more global since the time of Postman’s writing. This doesn’t make his claim obsolete, but instead should inspire us to consider how new advances in technology and travel have affected how we handle the global sharing of information
Postman turns a question on his reader, wondering how many times the news he or she consumes daily impels them to any kind of action that they would not have otherwise taken. This rhetorical question then launches a new critique of image culture: information is no longer delivered in the service of any action. We absorb the news every day, but the information is impotent, says Postman, because it has no effect outside of capturing our attention for a short time. Postman says this problem is predicted by the telegraph, for, “to the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.”
We might also look more closely at Postman’s working definition of “relevant.” What makes information “relevant” to a person is its power to enable direct action. Postman contends that information that is about regions remote from us does not enable action. The question, then, must be: is this still true today? With the Internet, we are certainly overloaded with potential knowledge about every possible thing, but it could also be argued that this knowledge allows us to effect more change than was formerly possible.
Postman moves on to a discussion of the photograph. He first notes that etymologically, “Photograph” means “writing with light.” He says this is perhaps ironic, given that photography and writing, he will argue, have nothing in common. He claims that photography, on its own, can only deal with concrete particularities. It cannot deal with abstract, remote, internal, or invisible content. What’s more, photographs, like the telegraph, isolate information from its context. Nothing outside the frame of the photograph is visible.
Next up in Postman’s history of the death of print culture is the photograph, which he says is limited in crucial ways. Photographs, because they are images, can only track things that are immediate, visible, and particular. We cannot take a picture of an abstraction. What’s more, photographs amputate content from context: we see what the photograph includes, but everything outside of the frame (everything contextual) is lost. This is, of course, a very narrow viewpoint, however. Postman altogether discounts photography as an art form (something that could convey abstract or invisible content), and he ignores the fact that in some ways, words are just as metaphorical and detached as photos are in their relationship to abstract concepts.
Photography would, in Postman’s account, end up launching a kind of assault on written language. Postman uses the word “assault” because, as he sees it, photography did not position itself as a supplement to language and print, but as a replacement of it. Newspapers and advertisers immediately recognized the power of the photograph to captivate audiences. Print started to recede from the front page of the newspaper as front-page photographs grew larger, and advertisers cashed in on public appreciation of pre-packaged, decontextualized images. And thus, “For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing.”
Postman sees the photograph as not only different to printed media, but directly (and in fact aggressively) opposed to print media. Postman suggests that humans are naturally drawn to images and sound bites over lengthy printed material, because they are easier to digest and require less mental work. Thus the photograph and the telegraph teamed up to change the face of American discourse, starting most significantly with the newspaper, which quickly became a kind of photographic enterprise.
Postman then argues that the photograph and the telegraph gave each other a pseudo-context. Brief sound bites of language, accompanied by a photographic image, became a popular item of consumption—whether in politics, entertainment, or advertising. But this pseudo-context is only a false refuge of sorts, for a culture “overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.”
When we see text accompanied by a photograph, we assume that they relate to one another. Postman says this is a false sense of context, however, for really we are just seeing decontextualized information being normalized by other decontextualized information.
Print culture was not annihilated in one fell swoop, though, says Postman. “In the novels and stories of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, and even in the columns of the newspaper giants—the Herald Tribune, the Times—prose thrilled with a vibrancy and intensity that delighted ear and eye. But this was exposition's nightingale song, most brilliant and sweet as the singer nears the moment of death.” And the problem is certainly intensifying, Postman says. As new generations are born who literally don’t know of a life without television, the dominance of television culture is seemingly secured as indelible.
Postman’s belief in the importance of literature—and especially fiction—comes through again in this passage, where he not only endorses the writing of great American fiction authors, but also indulges in some literary figurative language himself. Postman’s argument is rhetorical as well as historical—he wants to be like Huxley and Orwell not only in his ability to prophesize but also in his ability to write figuratively, it seems.
Postman takes a moment to address a technology that is still in its early stages: the computer. “We are told that we cannot run our businesses, or compile our shopping lists, or keep our checkbooks tidy unless we own a computer. Perhaps some of this is true. But the most important fact about computers and what they mean to our lives is that we learn about all of this from television.” Television, says Postman, will remain dominant because it is how we get all of our information. It is our way of knowing about the world.
It’s glaringly obvious here that Postman is writing before the age of the internet. Computers will become more and more important, he allows, but television will remain the dominant source of information. It is clear now that Postman’s prediction was wrong. But the question remains: what would Postman say about the internet? How would this new system of information fit into his larger argument?
Postman wraps up the chapter by noting that the culture of the image, the relentless de-contextualization and irrelevancy that saturates our everyday lives, goes basically unnoticed. In other words, there seems something totally natural about this kind of communication of information. This, contends, Postman, is the most pernicious effect of television culture: to make that which ought to seem strange into something apparently natural. His goal, he says, is to “make the epistemology of television visible again.”
Postman reiterates that his book is important because it informs us about a history of media that is crucial to our understanding of our present relationship with media. But this book also teaches us to look at what seems natural and to put it into context as something new and conditional—and therefore changeable.