Book Club: AOTD – ch.1 “The Medium is the Metaphor”

Epistemology is one of those words you learn in college that makes you feel really smart when you use it in conversation. Here is what epistemology means: the theory of knowledge. It’s the study how we know stuff. It gets super complicated and as one who is not that strong in philosophy, I wrestled through this chapter (and book!). I was confronted with epistemology when I began to study Greek and Hebrew. Greek taught me a lot about logic and grammar. But Hebrew really broke it down to the fundamentals of language itself. With Greek, you can often find the English version of a letter or word. But with Hebrew none of the letters were familiar. I had to see how language takes a shape and assigns a phonetic value (sound), combines that with other shapes with their sounds all governed by certain rules and this forms a word. Words are combined to make sentences, paragraphs and so language is recorded. Like driving a car without understanding how an engine works there is a lot more going on with the words we use daily than we think. In this chapter, Postman draws our attention to consider how we communicate because it is the channel for what we communicate.

We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

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The Medium is the Metaphor

The quote above comes at the end of the chapter nicely summarizing what the chapter is about. As a thought experiment, I thought it best to tackle this chapter backwards. Postman is concerned to show the reader that language does far more than just act as an envelope for a letter. Language itself affects the message contained within. Why is it more meaningful to get a nice handwritten letter than a nice email with the exact same words? It is because the medium (mail, internet) itself affects the meaning of the message. Now how does a letter differ from the spoken word? As Postman says, “writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian,, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist…(12). Writing changes the game and changes the culture from an oral to literary one.

Postman cites the example of the clock. Previously, men were beholden to tracking the sun and organizing their life around the seasons. But once the clock was invented we became “time-keepers, then time-savers, and now time-servers” (11). The clock didn’t just give us a new way to think about time. The clock changed how we saw the world. In this way each new medium where speech is communicated impacts how we interact with the world.

Now to be sure, Postman is addressing the issue of his day which was the ascendency of television over print media which he laments. But it doesn’t take a graduate degree to consider how social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, the 24-hour news cycle, and smartphones have dramatically shifted our culture. We would do well to consider the advances and dangers new media bring to our lives.

Culture as Conversation

Postman uses “conversation” as a metaphor for “all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages”(6). Postman is arguing that as these technologies change then so does the conversation. He brings in the example of presidential elections. Would the famously overweight Howard Taft have been elected if people could have seen what he looked like? The idea that a presidential candidate would have to think about his weight or what he looked like on camera was unthinkable until TV entered and changed the conversation. Consider even more recent events (going back to 2008) which seem to blur the lines between the president and a Hollywood celebrity. The movement from landline phones to mobile phones to text messaging to Snapchat and the like have changed the conversation and thus the culture is changing as well. Note that we have not addressed the content. We are only talking about the medium for the content. The point is considered that how something is communicated impacts what is communicated.

Never Leaving Las Vegas

If there is a statue of a hog butcher somewhere in Chicago, then it stands as a reminder of the time when America was railroads, cattle, steel mills, and entrepreneurial adventure…Today, we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor for 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.

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The primary issue is that entertainment has taken over our communication. This is due to the introduction of television which is a visual medium. As a result, nearly every area of American life has shifted and continues to shift in order to meet the visual demands even over-against the content of whatever the thing may be. Postman warns that this change has spread so far and wide we are now “a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death”(4).

Reflections

Postman’s primary point is that our language and the media we use to communicate do far more than we think they do. We may not agree with Postman’s assessment on everything in this book but he is spot on here. Consider the shifts from landlines to cordless phones and then to mobile phones. Think about the movement from Nokia block phones to our smartphones today. Remember when Facebook was just a silly thing for connecting with old college friends? How has the shift from checks and cash to primarily debit and credit cards affected how we think about money? Postman has opened a big can of philosophical worms that most of us would rather not think about, but it is critical that we do.

As a pastor, I think about communication. I preach to my congregation twice on Sundays in person, but we also put the recordings out over the internet. The leadership of our church carefully considers what we use in our worship service and how we organize our worship order because how we worship impacts the content of our worship.

I think Postman’s argument that how we communicate affects what we communicate is sound and should lead us to careful reflection. I don’t think we need to get rid of things like social media or the news. Even if I did they aren’t going anywhere. However, I do agree with others that we need to carefully weigh the cost of these new communication tools against the benefits they provide. This is why I deactivated my Facebook account. I still have my Twitter account which I mainly use to notify others about new sermons or blog posts. Basically, I am trying to be very intentional with my use of these technologies because I understand that they are not neutral.

Well, that’s it for now. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into Postman’s argument in the next chapter. What did you think? If how we communicate affects what we communicate what do our media say about our culture? Reach out and shoot me an email here. If you are looking for some books on our current media check our 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (review), The Tech-Wise Family and Digital Minimalism (currently reading).