Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Typographical Mind

One of the best books I've read recently is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. - Foreword.

Cover of my paperback
Written in 1985, the book was meant to be a scathing critique of the then-dominant TV culture. Sadly, Mr. Postman died of lung cancer in 2003, so we will never know his opinions on the internet. I've been unable to find any quotes attributed to him, but we can extrapolate his views by this quote from another book, Technopoly: [in a technopoly] the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.

From the same book: Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.

Anyway, back to Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The book was very easy to read and comprehend, so nobody should be afraid of picking it up, despite your education background. The chapters that fascinated me the most (besides the one on TV preachers) were chapters three and four, entitled Typographic America and The Typographical Mind. But first, a synopsis.

In the first chapter, Medium is Metaphor, Postman argues that " every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself." To illustrate this, he points out that eyeglasses, invented in the 12th Century, were the first tools man ever used to overcome the limitations of old age and natural wear-and-tear. With mediums of information, he postulates that every medium of communication contains inherent characteristics of what message will be sent, regardless of the actual words used.

There is a lot to take in when reading this book, such as the history of show business and how politics is now a form of entertainment. But the section I want to focus on in this post is about pre-electric America and when the decline of public discourse began.

According to Postman, the pre-electric American colonies were rife with books. Reading a book, after all, requires that one know how to read and already have some grasp of the subject at hand. The whole book must be read to fully understand the subject, or the author's position on said subject. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 were among the shorter sessions the two men had together (at only seven hours). And yet, as those two great statesmen argued their positions on the most terrible moral quandaries our nation has faced to date, ten years had already passed since four infamous words were transmitted by a means other than speech and paper:

What hath God wrought.

That's right. According to Postman, the telegraph was the beginning of the decline in our public discourse. Why?

Because the telegraph was the first time in history when information could be presented without any context. He quotes Henry David Thoreau, "We are so eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some few weeks nearer to the new, but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Postman continues to argue that once the newspapers were able to combine headlines from around the world with photographs, people no longer needed to read the entire paper to get a good feel for the subject matter. TV, he says, is news from nowhere directed at no one in particular, but it started a long time ago and was a gradual process. TV (and by extension, the internet) is only the end result.

In my opinion, this makes more than a little sense. Why do people claim the Bible is littered with contradictions? Because they compare select verses without reading anything before, after, or anything in between. Why do police officers have to wear body cams? Because the public wants access to the full context of every deadly encounter. Why are traditional news outlets considered shameless liars? Because they omit pieces of information that will undermine their case, i.e. "selective reporting."

Postman is not a Luddite, though he was accused of it many times. His cautionary work is meant to highlight how society is in danger if they allow themselves to be controlled by technology, but not that technology is inherently evil. Like Socrates allegedly said, all things in moderation.

In 1516, Thomas More coined a new word for a fictional island he had invented: utopia. It was constructed from two Greek words meaning "no-place," and in its original etymological use, refers to any society that does not exist. Only recently has it come to mean a veritable paradise.

Today, we have created a "no-place" parallel to our own society: cyberspace. Our entire legal system is shifting on the idea that what happens in this "no-place" can affect people in reality. People go to jail for sending the wrong text messages. Rants posted online are taken as serious threats. Some people will devote thousands of hours to a virtual world like World of Warcraft or Stardew Valley, and even have relationships that only exist online (even romantic ones). Traditional TV as I knew it in the 1990s has ceased to exist, and everything is powered by the Web. Every time I think I have a good idea for a fictional treatment of these issues I'm knocked down a peg or two because the topic is so overwhelming in its breadth and the far reach of its implications. This blog post is hardly doing it justice.

But I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's very timely and the arguments still hold true, despite being thirty years old. I had many thoughts after reading it, and will probably have to go through it again, but the one that kept coming back to me was...

The Typewriter Revolution must continue.


  1. Thanks for this report! I keep hearing about Postman's book but haven't gotten around to it yet. It does sound valuable.

    1. I am genuinely surprised that you haven't read this, given your extensive work on communication in the modern era. You'll find it very interesting.

  2. PS: All news outlets, not just the traditional ones, practice selective reporting. All reporting is necessarily selective, and necessarily fails to capture the whole truth, even when it contains nothing but the truth. Still, there are degrees of journalistic responsibility, and some journalists will present relatively thorough reports that acknowledge various points of view, while pointing out what is still unknown. Too bad that most of us don't have patience to read those reports!