Book Club: AOD – Ch.5 “Peek-A-Boo World”

Postman is eager to show us how our media has shifted our thinking. We once lived in the “Age of Exposition” and now we live in the “Age of Show Business.” This chapter describes how we began to make that transition. It is said that ideas have consequences. Postman identifies two important ideas. First, the idea that we could remove the restraints of distance on communication. The second idea was to refashion nature to make it “comprehensible and manageable” (71). These ideas, Postman argues, are represented by two inventions: the telegraph and the photograph.

Annihilating Distance

That is what the telegraph was about. How could we close the communication gap between Maine and Texas? How could we speed up news so it arrives in minutes rather than days or weeks? Enter Samuel Morse and his invention which allowed people across vast distances to communicate with one another. What could be wrong with that?

At the time Henry David Thorough questioned the new technology. He didn’t question whether Maine and Texas could communicate. He wondered if Maine and Texts had anything meaningful to communicate about. He was concerned that what we could do was clouding the question of whether we should.

Postman says the telegraph launched a three-pronged attack on the the discourse of the day. A media informed by print was subjected to “large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence” (65). Discourse became irrelevant because information was no longer bound to the context of the local community. It was about people in far off places doing far off things. This also brought about impotence because very little could be done about what was being shared. In this form of discourse information had no use. It informs and requires you to do nothing. The telegraph brought incoherence because as Postman writes, “The principle statement of the telegraph was to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it” (69). The telegraph gives no room for analysis, just a steady stream of facts or headlines. Postman concludes:

Thus, to the reverent question posed by Morse – What hath God wrought?- a disturbing answer came back: a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities.

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Writing with Light

“Photograph” means “writing with light.” But Postman argues this is a false assumption. Photos don’t tell stories. People tell stories. The photograph was thought to be a clone of nature. It would be to sight what print is to speech. But photos can’t explain. They can only show. And while some argue that a picture speaks for itself, Postman argues that it is incapable of doing so. A picture requires spoken or written words to explain it. Otherwise it is just an image without context. Further, if you saw a picture of a flower, but this picture is disconnected from your past or future then it will fade away into obscurity. Even if you remember it, the only usefulness you will get is a bit of trivia.
The combination of these new technologies changed how we thought about technology:

Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use.

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In other words, we had to invent ways to use all the disconnected facts in our lives to justify knowing them. The results are crossword puzzles, trivia games and so on. These are “the last refuge…of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence” (76)

Welcome to a peek-a-boo world

By the these technologies we have shifted into a world where events, ideas and words pass in and out in a flash. They don’t ask anything of us. We aren’t able to do anything about them. It is like a child playing peek-a-boo: here one moment and gone the next. It isn’t helpful to us, but it is very, very entertaining. Postman concedes that there is nothing wrong with being entertained. The problem comes when we try to live our lives in constant distraction and amusement. It’s okay to build a castle in the sky for fun. The problem is when you try to live in it.

And here is where he connects it to television. TV has become the main medium through which people receive their information (in 1985). It has become the primary tool which directs the content of knowledge and how we know it. The problem is that TV is only designed to entertain. That doesn’t mean people don’t try to be serious with TV. According to Postman that’s when it gets dangerous. Postman concludes ominously:

Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming fifty years ago.

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My kids get bored regularly. And guess what they ask to do? Watch TV. They want to be entertained. But that is so passive (even grammatically). It if far better for them to entertain themselves. So we tell them to go outside. Read a book. Play with your siblings. Build something. Sing something (outside!). But let’s be honest. I want to be entertained too. I want to be distracted from my stresses and worries. But as we are finding out, lives filled with distraction are actually destroying our mental health and quality of life.

If Postman were writing today he would be addressing cell phones and social media. These are the new mediums by which most people get their information. Even cable news, which everyone complains about, is built on entertainment. These are the new telegraphs. There is no time for analysis before the next headline, tweet, or post. There is only time for instant reactions. Get angry. Get outraged. Don’t think, just click. Even when we stop to think what information are we receiving? Is it just someone else’ opinion and summary? What do we think about the issue ourselves? Or are we just parroting those we listen to so we can feel as though we are informed? This book a long diagnosis of a problem. It is a problem we are still dealing with and just beginning to recognize. We need better information and less of it. We need to narrow our focus and develop the ability of saying “no” to much of what is offered to us online.

People complain about the entertainment church or how church isn’t entertaining enough. Perhaps our problem is that we have assumed a base level necessity to be entertained. Actually we need to be bored, embrace silence and seek out information that will actually be relevant to our lives. It is in silence that we actually process the information we have. We aren’t shocked that TV, smartphones, social media exist. They are the new normal. What is weird is the person who doesn’t use them, who lives in the moment and place they actually exist in.

I kept thinking about how the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are pictures. But in the church we must always explain them. Another of my professors said, “A picture isn’t worth a thousand words. A picture requires a thousand words.” If you don’t supply the words then others will. So I read the passages in scripture that talk about how we are supposed to take the Lord’s Upper. We say the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus given for sinners, for you and me. Words, Holy Spirit inspired biblical words, are what make the sacrament a powerful picture of grace.

Postman’s line about “a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity; a world of fragments and discontinuities” is haunting. I can think of no better description than the online world in which we live. My hope is that we will begin waking up to the realities of what our technology is doing to us, how it affects our thinking and the flow of information. In doing so we can then reclaim our focus upon the things that actually matter. Because as a father of five children I can tell you that peek-a-boo is fun to play but not for that long, certainly not for the rest of my life.

What do you think? Do you see the implications of the telegraph and photo affecting our discourse today? Contact me here. Thanks for reading!

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