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Metadata of Note

Type: 🍃 Leaf [Nomenclature present here.]

Source: The book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Tags: #socialissues #writing #innovation

Date: July 7th, 2022


I’m reading the book Amusing Ourselves to Death recommended by Rishabh. It’s a deeply thought-provoking book that attacks the technologies that are lauded for innovation (such as telegraphy, photography, television, etc) — and accuses them of moving us from a world of accessing entertainment to living in it.


Invention of Telegraph

Specifically, Neil Postman talks about how the invention of telegraphy began this destruction on May 2nd, 1844.

In the 1840s, America was still a composite of regions, each conversing in its own ways, addressing its own interests. A continent-wide conversation was not yet possible. The solution to these problems, as every school child used to know, was electricity. To no one’s surprise, it was an American who found a practical way to put electricity in the service of communication and, in doing so, eliminated the problem of space once and for all. I refer, of course, to Samuel Finley Breese Morse, America’s first true “spaceman.” His telegraph erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the continent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified American discourse.

But at a considerable cost. For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country.” It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some 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 whooping cough.”


Telegraphy Made Irrelevance Relevant

By shortening the time it took for news to travel between states and borders, telegraphy didn’t just make access to information faster, it also did a few more things:

It gave legitimacy to the idea of context-free information:

For the first time, information was not tied to any function it might serve with respect to social or political decision-making, but is interesting merely due to a sense of novelty and curiosity it provokes.

The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.


Most of the information had little to do with those to whom it was addressed:

A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about.

The telegraph may have made the country into “one neighborhood,” but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.


The “action-value” of most of the information became low:

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information that answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply. (Location 1295)


Knowing went from “knowing about things” to just “knowing lots of things”

This has only been exacerbated in the past century with the advent of the internet, computers, social media, and a newer version of information transfer. We equate knowing things to knowing about things.


But Television Brought Irrelevance Into Our Home

As Neil states, “The communications media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with telegraphy and photography at their center, called the peek-a-boo world into existence, but we did not come to live there until television.”


While telegraph made accessing information instant, and photography brought a visual flavor, the television combined both to provide dangerous perfection, and it brought all this to our homes.


Almost every home in America has a television now.

To quote Neil again,

Twenty years ago, the question was, Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television—that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, and accepted as natural. (Location 1453)

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.