What is it that controls what is accepted and rejected within any society? Who decides what is right, and what is wrong, and what is an illusion? In Amusing Ourselves to death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show business, Neil Postman makes many arguments that the dominant medium of culture conversation, does not simply reflect a culture that is already in effect, but rather this medium reshapes culture into it's own image and likeness. Postman believes that each of the dominant mediums whether it be the spoken word, the printed word, or the newest technology of satellites and televisions, shapes our prevailing expectations of what is appropriate and what is an illusion! Are we trapped inside a world of sitcoms, cartoons, and gossip news stories?
This basic belief about the dominant mediums can be observed in what Postman calls the transition from the 'age of exposition' to the 'age of show business.' How much has our culture changed because of the shift in the medium? Postman argues that our culture is reshaped by its dominant medium of cultural conversation, and that the difference between the culture of a print based society verses a television based society effects intellectual tendencies and public discourse of all the people in the respective communities. The print based societies can date as far back as the conversations that took place as cave paintings or smoke signals up to the invention of the alphabet and of course into the enlightened age of Colonial America. This place we call home, America was founded by a group of intellectual men who brought over readings, and books from the 'Old World' to start their 'New World' with. In America literacy rates climbed, and everyone wanted to read. As time went on, reading was no longer considered an elitist activity but rather an activity that was spread throughout all of America. 'Every man was close to what [printed matter] talked about. Everyone could speak the same language'(Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 34). Americans in the Colonial day immersed themselves in reading. In order to comprehend the scattered symbols that lie on the page, one must posses something of great importance, an imagination, and a desire to reflect. The written word has context, a semantic, paraphrasable, propositional content. (Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 48). As America moved into the nineteenth century the people were also introduced to new forms of readings, pamphlets and newspapers. Everyone could 'Read All About it!' as we watch them say on TV today.
The influence of the printed word in every area of public discourse, religion, politics, education, commerce, and social situations was tenacious and influential. This age relied heavily on the printed word. This 'age of exposition' was coupled with an 'age of reason' and logic. People were searching for the truth in every aspect of their lives. Capitalism was demonstrated to be a rational and liberal system of economic life. The religious rights of the 'divine' kings were shown to be a simple prejudice remark. The necessity of literacy was becoming apparent if people were going to begin fighting for their beliefs. 'To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning'(Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 51). Their goal was to uncover the truth, and destroy the confusion, to compare the ideas and to connect one generalization to another. In a social age dominated by the printed word, public discourse would tend to be characterized by a coherent and orderly arrangement of facts and opinions. The public for whom it is written is usually more that competent enough to handle such a discourse (Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 51).
There is a serious disposition about books and the words that they hold, they do not create illusions, it is our imagination that does that. The people of today, however, do not always see the significance of a pensive literary publication. In the previous ages, their sophistication was without electricity; the printed word held a monopoly on both intellect and attention. There was no other means of keeping involved in public world and gossip. Postman uses the first fifteen presidents to illustrate an important point. The average citizen could have passed by anyone of these gentleman and not been any wise to the fact. Could anyone in today's country walk by President Clinton and not recognize him? This is almost an impossible task in the TV world of today.
The culture of today is significantly different than the culture of those who came before the 'age of show business.' The printed page revealed the world line by line forcing people to think deductively and sequentially. This age has since then been replaced with a new era of convenience. The invention of the telegraph made it possible to take information out of its context and send it millions of miles away. Information was on its way to becoming a commodity. The value of the information passed through the telegraph was no longer tied to any position in social or political decision making, or actions. Instead information is now connected to novelty, interest and curiosity. The telegraph helped information become moveable, but did not help collect it, explain it, or analyze it. Along with the invention of the telegraph came a new type of conversation, one that could be called fragmented, impersonal, yet astonishing. 'To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them'(Amusing Ourselves to Death, pg. 70). Did this invention bring the beginning of a world where neither time nor space could stand in its way, did it help join a country, or fragment its most valuable possession- information?
The telegraph was soon followed by the invention of the photograph. This was the second stage ...