Postman’s clearest words on the scope and intent of this book:
To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television. (p. 8)
For the first time, he proposes the book's primary thesis – that in the current climate, "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment," which has put us in a position where we are "slowly amusing ourselves to death" (3-4).
Postman begins by recalling how the year 1984 brought no collapse of "liberal democracy," despite the warning perpetuated by George Orwell's novel 1984 (xix). However, he then reminds us how Aldous Huxley had suggested an utterly distinct type of dystopia from Orwell's. Where Orwell warned that an "externally imposed oppression" was imminent, Huxley feared that society would collapse under the oppression of "technologies that undo [our] capacities to think," and which we would celebrate rather than fear (xix).
Simply put, Orwell worried that information and truth would be suppressed, whereas Huxley worried the truth would become irrelevant in the face of "distractions." Postman offers that his book is "about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right" (xx).
In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms. (p. 6)
What he is getting at is the relationship between content and form. We all have conversations of all kinds. All of these messages are carried out through differing “symbolic modes.” For instance, you wouldn’t, or better yet, couldn’t, expect smoke signals to be the best choice for discussing philosophy. “You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.”
Likewise, “You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.” This is due to the form television employs to distribute its content: visual images. Television is mainly a conversation “in images, not words” making it…