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Amusing Ourselves to Death, Chapters 4-5
February 1, 2010, 8:28 am
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As I read further, I began to find things that not only angered me but offended me, just as Andrew Postman expected. Maybe in 1985 people were more open to the idea of technology ‘ruining’ us, but I feel such a strong need to defend the world that I live in;  I think this is the reason I have been reading even faster than usual.

Postman, in chapters 4 and 5, delves into the mental side of reading type – Having to ignore the shape of the letters in order to get the essence of the message and then juxtaposes the audience of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas with today’s audience.  In the instance of the aforementioned debate, the audience sat and listened for a total of seven hours, with the exception of a dinner break. What?! I can understand why he would not believe that today’s audience wouldn’t be so accomodating – especially without the aid of pictures. “These were people who regarded such events as essential to their political education,” he says, and then goes on to say they didn’t need bells and whistles to enjoy an oratory event.

Now, I don’t want to react as if he is making a blanket statment that is meant to include everyone. In fact, he has been very careful to commuicate to the reader that he is not completely against television nor is he trying to say that everyone is amusing themselves to death. I am just saying that, as I can tell right now, we are not any less interested in our ‘political education’ or any less interested in listening to people talk about such things simply because we aren’t holed up in a room or a park for the better part of a business day, listening to two people go on about what they think. Then he goes on to explain that the debators asked audiences to sit in silence instead of their usual cheering and jeering, for their silence was more valuable than their audible passion for what was being said. What? With the way these debators spoke? Yes.  This became true for writing as well – There were to be no emotions commuicated through writing just like, as we read, we have to emotionally disconnect ourselves from what we were reading in order to fully accept full message.  I guess it would be silly, as Postman mentioned, to stop reading to react.  Putting  your book down on the train, in the middle of a sentence to begin a touchdown victory dance because the author made a good point? Ridiculous.

 Postman also discusses  how Lincoln and others spoke their thoughts in a way that was ‘pure print’. Someone could record everything that was being said, word for word, and it could be put in a book and sold as-is. He also implies that we can’t or won’t have the capacity it takes to process a message if it were spoken that way in ‘today’s’ world. I quoted ‘today’ to remind myself and my fellow readers that ‘today’ is not 2010 (which I pronounce the cool way – ‘twenty-ten’) but 1985, when the book was first written. Maybe back then we weren’t smart enough to internalize complex sentence structures delivered orally. Is that still true today? Probably. Or, maybe, the messages are just as complex but are simple in their execution. He tries to make sure not to give the impression that the people of this time were “models of intelletcual property” but he pretty much does it anyway.

Yes, people in 1858 were keen on their ability to hear the messages for what they were, even when they were in pretty, elaborate packages. Our messges are shorter now and definitely simpler but the sheer quantity of information we handle on a daily basis would make old Abe’s head explode. Maybe, just maybe, we aren’t experiencing degradation but an evolution that transcends the ability to comprend idea of that ‘complexity’ though, I believe, we could do that, too.

Finally, he discusses the introduction of advertisements in newspapers in the 1860s. They were just as long and complicated as the words of  their public speakers until 1896, when Procter and Gamble made a slogan for Ivory soap while many other companies began using pictures and short catch phrases to catch the readers’ attention.  Postman considers this to be a time when advertisers stopped assuming that their potential customers were rational enough to absorb advertisements that were delivered in prose. “Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. Reason had to move itself to other arenas.”

And so, finally, with this last quote from Postman, I pose this question: Did we go from having no emotional connection to our words and our audience to having so many emotions we can no longer utilize or appreciate writing and speaking like we once did?

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