Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, makes an interesting case on how our generation has migrated from a culture centered on the written word, or the “Age of Typography”, to a culture centered on the visual word, or the “Age of Television”, and how this shift has led to our demise as a thoughtful and intelligent people.
Postman begins his dissertation by tracing the evolution of how different cultures throughout mankind’s history have portrayed and communicated knowledge and truth. The oral tradition forms the basis of the justice system in a tribe of western Africa, yet in the justice system of America, judges and lawyers give little heed to oral axioms or proverbs. Rather, the written law is of more import. In ancient Greece the shift “from the ear to the eye” (12) was the birth of philosophy, a discipline that is useless without the ability to put down and have critiqued one’s ideas. Postman claims that just as the rule of the oral word has fallen to the written word, our generation is going through a similar shift from the written word to the visual word, mediated by technology and electronics.
Before the invention of the telegraph, the photograph, and the television, the printed word reigned supreme in colonial American. The literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut between 1640 and 1700 exceeded 90%. This monopoly was due not only to the lack of any alternatives for acquiring information, but also came as a result of the Reformation, where the translation of the Bible into the layman’s tongue and the invention of the printing press freed the people from the ignorance previously imposed on them by the Catholic church and the monarchy. And since the colonial American spoke the same language as its motherland, Great Britain, it was no great hardship for the products of Gutenburg’s printing press to make its way to the shores of the New World. There was no “literary aristocracy”, as Postman puts it.
One prime example Postman uses to demonstrate the typographic mind of the colonial American is the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s. These debates, typical of any oratory event during this time period, lasted for upwards of five hours and never ran short on an audience. At one such debate, Douglas was to deliver a three-hour address to which Lincoln would have an equal amount of time to respond. However, when Lincoln’s time came, he reminded his audience that it was already 5 p.m., and suggested that the people go home for dinner and reconvene later that night for the final four hours of the talk. What audience today would agree to such a proposal in good-humour and willingly return to complete the remaining four out of seven hours of oratory? The other interesting facet of these debates resides in the content of the address’ themselves. Read, or better yet listen, to any of the speeches given by both candidates, and it becomes readily evident that their prose is pure script. It often involves intricate grammar and sentence structure that required a high literacy rate of its listeners. Its content often assumed the audience to have knowledge of historical events, past legal issues, and previous addresses by a variety of political speakers.
Postman concludes Part I of his book with a promise to spend the second half shifting the focus from the past to the present and the future. From the Golden Age of Typography to the Slow but Sure Downfall of Human Intellect, illuminated by the flickering light of a television set.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this review.