Home > Critical Thinking, Culture & Media, History > Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 3: The Central Issue

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 3: The Central Issue

In his third chapter entitled Media as Epistemology, Postman serves us a concise summary of his position relative to the topic of this chapter and the central theme of his entire book:

Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute. And that is why it is necessary for me to drive hard the point that the weight assigned to any form of truth-telling is a function of the influence of media of communication. ‘Seeing is believing’ has always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but ‘saying is believing,’ ‘reading is believing,’ ‘counting is believing,’ ‘deducing is believing,’ and ‘feeling is believing’ are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change. As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it. (page 24 [emphasis added])

Postman is obviously not a multiculturalist who posits all cultures being equivalent. He continues to clarify his position by showing how the underlying philosophy of discourse can have the impact that he claims it does:

…at no point do I care to claim that changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds or changes in their cognitive capacities….My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling. I will say once again that I am no relativist in this matter, and that I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist. (page 27 [emphasis added])

We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word. To be sure, there are still readers and there are many books published, but the uses of print and reading are not the same as they once were; not even in schools, the last institutions where print was thought to be invincible. They delude themselves who believe that television and print coexist, for coexistence implies parity. There is no parity here. Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens. 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. (page 28 [emphasis added])

Postman’s Core Thesis:

Obviously, my point of view is that the four-hundred-year imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit than deficit. Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas about education, knowledge, truth and information. I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines. On what benefits may come from other directions, one must keep an open mind. (page 29)

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