Book Club: AOD – Ch.2 “Media as Epistemology”

Thinking is hard. Thinking about thinking is even harder. Thus we continue the joyful frolic in the land of epistemology. For Postman, knowledge is about metaphors, because metaphors are how we communicate truth. Postman is not one to beat around the bush. Neil is concerned that our metaphors are changing the way we think and talk about important subjects.

He writes:

It is my intention in this book to show a great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.

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The Problem: We take TV too seriously

Postman worries about the rise of television over print media. In his view, television best serves us as mental junk food. By it’s design it is not meant for serious contemplation of ideas. He has a point. One need only glance at the mindless garbage we call reality TV and the prosecution rests its case. “There is a lot of junk,” says the defendant, “but there are also engaging movies and shows which provoke our minds and stimulate conversation.” Postman would disagree. It may be provoking, but only within the realm of a television show. How often you rolled your eyes at your friend who complained the movie wasn’t as good as the book? (If you’re that friend, please stop. Don’t be that guy.) As Postman sees it Television is the wrong tool for serious cultural discourse.

Media as resonance

The term “resonance” describes how different media affect the way people communicate truth. He then cites three examples. First is from a tribe in western Africa. As an oral culture, the truth of a matter is determined by the application of various proverbs. The process requires reciting wisdom sayings until a suitable one is found. In the Bible, King Solomon was praised for speaking three thousand proverbs and writing over one thousand songs! Postman argues that this would not be acceptable to us today. We would not accept ancient proverbs in the courtroom. It would not impress us if our president published a book of wisdom sayings (although I would buy that in a heartbeat). Even with oral testimony, the courtroom is essentially “print-based.” As such “lawyers do not have to be wise, they need to be well briefed”(20).

The second example is found in the university system. There the printed word is king. If you write an academic paper you better be sure to cite your sources. But not all sources are acceptable. Can you cite a speech you heard? Why is that less credible than a peer-reviewed paper in a journal? “The written word endures, the spoken word disappears,” says Postman, “and that is why writing is closer to the truth than speaking” (21).

The third example comes from the trial of Socrates who was condemned to death. He began by apologizing for his manner of speech. He would dispense of any rhetoric and seek to tell the truth. The problem for Socrates was that rhetoric was the proper way to organize speech to present truth. Bad news for Socrates.

In these examples, Postman is arguing that how we communicate affects what we communicate. If we don’t pay attention to our metaphors then we can be right but still losing the argument. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of the courtroom, get a bad grade on a paper or drink a cup of hemlock! How we communicate matters.

Truth and its clothing

When I was in college I prided myself on dressing differently. I had an obnoxious red Hawaiian shirt that I would wear with an equally obnoxious tie. It was yellow with monkeys and bananas on it. Yes, I was desperate for attention. I loved wearing that ensemble to the wrong place. Don’t you judge me. It wasn’t until later that I appreciated how different clothing is necessary for different contexts. You don’t want to show up at a formal dinner in cargo shorts and flip-flops. The clothing itself doesn’t change your body, but it does help you belong in the moment.

What is it that makes someone believable? Why would you trust what they are saying especially if it challenges your view? What are the criteria they must meet? We can apply this to individuals and society as a whole. It gets more complex when you do that though. Postman is not a cultural relativist. He argues that some ways of telling the truth are better than others. In his estimation print is the best for communicating serious ideas. His point is that as truth changes its clothes so do the places truth can go. As the media changes so does the quality of ideas we communicate.

This was my favorite metaphor in the chapter. It helps us understand what Postman means. Real truth exists, but to communicate truth you are going to have to put some clothes on it. That is what Postman is talking about. Truth is truth. But truth also has to figure out what she is going to wear to dinner.

Here is a final quote:

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the history of communication knows that every new technology for thinking involves a trade off. It giveth and taketh away, although not quite in equal measure. Media Change does not necessarily result in equilibrium. It sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it is the other way around. We must be careful praising or condemning because the future may hold surprises for us.

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Postman would be surprised and have his suspicions confirmed today. How people view truth has changed through the internet and social media. The design of Twitter and Facebook affects how we communicate. What are these metaphors doing to our communication? How about blogs, podcasts, and YouTube? There are benefits and costs to be weighed and measured. Progress and innovation are wonderful, but they are costly too. Can we seriously dismiss Postman’s fears of our discourse descending into “dangerous nonsense”?

This chapter gives us a moment to pause and consider our means of communication. How do we receive information? How do we give information? We are well beyond the days of the evening news. Now news never ends. We used to call our friends and hang up. Now with Instagram, our friends never leave. We don’t want them to.

What do you think? You can send me your thoughts here. Thanks for reading!

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