“The Medium Is the Metaphor”: Chapter 1 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the second installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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Throughout history differing cities have taken on the vocation, whether they wanted it or not, as “the focal point of a radiating American spirit.” Early on in American history it was Boston, followed by New York City, and perhaps more recently, Chicago. In 1985, Postman argued this focal point had shifted to

Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (p. 3-4)

Indeed.

I’d certainly agree with this assessment dating back to 1985. Now, in 2013, this reality has become the proverbial water we unconsciously swim in. Nothing is worthwhile if it is not entertaining. And entertaining has often come with the price tag of shortsightedness, shallowness, vapidness, and an overall spirit imbibed by individualism.

Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers. (p. 5)

Postman contends that within our entertainment-centric culture, it is essential to take note of the “conversations” we have and the manner by which we have them. He uses the term

metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all the techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms. (p. 6)

What he is getting at is the relationship between content and form. We all have conversations of all kinds. All of these messages are carried out through differing “symbolic modes.” For instance, you wouldn’t, or better yet, couldn’t, expect smoke signals to be the best choice for discussing philosophy. “You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.”

Likewise, “You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.” This is due to the form television employs to distribute its content: visual images. Television is mainly a conversation “in images, not words” making it difficult to see – quite literally – past an unattractive person giving forth wisdom on a given topic. Our listening is predicated upon the level of attraction to the image we see, not the level of information/experience/knowledge of the content.

If this all beginning to sound Marshall McLuhan-esque, it should. Postman is not shy about his reliance upon McLuhan and his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Yet, he differentiates between message and metaphor.

A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like. (p. 10)

Furthermore,

We are told in school, quite correctly, that a metaphor suggests what thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man; the mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge. And if these metaphors no longer serve us, we must, in the nature of the matter find others that will. Light is a particle; language, a river; God (as Bertrand Russell proclaimed), a differential equation; the mind, a garden that years to be cultivated.

The trouble with our media metaphors is their inherent complexity. They are not easy things to recognize, let alone their subtle power and influence. Again, they are the proverbial water we’re swimming in and, as such, we are hardly cognizant of their effect.

For instance, think about the very media you are engaged with right now, namely the computer and internet. They enable you to connect with me via my blog (my content). I am here in the greater Syracuse area and you, well you might be right around the corner or around the world. My words are the digitized version of my thoughts coming to you through a combination of 1′s and 0′s. The light from the computer screen hits your retinas and as a written word, you have some fun interpretive moves to make. Moreover, the form – the computer – molds, shapes, and allows for the message to be accepted in myriad of ways. When we begin looking behind the curtains of our media metaphors – complexity and all – Postman encourages us to begin with the following: “And yet such digging becomes easier if we start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”

I love the example Postman borrows from Lewis Mumford. Mumford was one of these people who noticed the unnoticed. He was enamored with the clock, both its function and formative nature. In his thoughtful “digging” regarding the ubiquitous clock, he concluded,

“‘The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.’ In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.”  (p. 11)

We effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers” with the invention of the clock. It seems the clock carries with it an idea beyond its implicit function.

The question is now: What effect has our transition “from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics” had on us? How can we begin to dig into the media metaphors we are swimming in? In what manner have our metaphors altered our messages? The Age of Electronics has dawned; how has it changed things?

If Postman is correct, it begins with the recognition of our conversations, in both form and content. Essential to the rest of his work is this foundational axiom: the medium is the metaphor. It doesn’t give us direct messages, yet discretely and profoundly shapes the message. If we want to begin to examine our culture, we need “to attend to its tools for conversation.” 

As we move forward in this conversation, I’ll leave you with Postman’s clearest words on the scope and intent of this book:

To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television. (p. 8)

Thoughts?

See you next time for chapter 2: “Media as Epistemology.”

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2 thoughts on ““The Medium Is the Metaphor”: Chapter 1 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. My husband is a bit of a fan of Postman (and McLuhan).

    I’m curious on your thoughts o how the landscape has changed since the book was written. The broadcasting era of television truly was a one-way, passive experience. We are now in a connected era, characterized by participation, interaction an two-way communication. I’m sure some of Postman’s observations are still valid, but there has been a critical shift. Will we transition away from entertainment, or just change the format?

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    - Kathleen

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