Neil Postman argues that the knowledge created by electronic media is inferior to the knowledge created by literate media. According to Postman there are various reasons for this, the first being that knowledge in an electronic culture is fragmented. By this he means that we receive bits of information that we have to piece together. Secondly, he says that we present knowledge in ways suitable for television, such as by fragmenting the information and making presentations of information into a spectacle. Thirdly, due to the amount of information surrounding the audience in an electronics-based society, people must develop a new set of skills to process and asses information. Postman states that the new ways we control information give persuaders too much power, and that it is often hard to assess and understand the information we receive. According to him, this information does not provide any sort of answers to the audience’s questions.
Finally, Postman explains that we are often influenced by unnoticed technologies that give us unquestioned information. These include the technologies of language and statistics. The persuasive knowledge that comes from these technologies is no less questionable than any other information, but we tend to not question it because we don’t realize we are being persuaded. Due to these influences of media on an electronic culture’s treatment of knowledge, Postman holds that in our society we see intelligent people as those that can use slogans and create persuasive images. For these reasons Postman sees electronic knowledge as inferior to literate knowledge.
There are a few issues with Postman’s argument and a few things that hold up under scrutiny. Firstly, information is indeed fragmented in our modern culture. Often, television will provide part of the story, assuming that you already have the rest of the information to fill in the blanks for yourself. Television assumes knowledge, and therefor has the leisure of fragmentation. Books, on the other hand, work to provide you as much of the information you need as possible in a linear manner so that you can build up an understanding. One could argue that the possible unknown pieces of knowledge that can arise from television’s fragmentation makes it inferior to literature.
However, it becomes a question of details or time. Television delivers information quicker due to assumed knowledge, but books give you all the details. Superiority depends on what you classify as more important. Postman would likely prefer details to speed, so he sees literature as superior. Secondly is the way we receive knowledge. The vast amount of information we receive requires us to sort through and ignore information until we find something, we deem worthy of our attention. This sifting requires that information be presented in extravagant ways so as to attract our attention. Postman subscribes to the view that such spectacles sacrifice important details so as to get the basic important details to us in a quick and attention drawing manner. This is likely true. Due to our electronic culture our minds are used to small and specific information delivered quickly, and therefore all information given to us must prescribe to that structure or else it risks losing our attention. Weather this is an issue or not calls back to the previous issue of details vs time. Thirdly we come to a more problematic claim of Postman’s, which is that the processing skills we derive from a electronic culture give far to much power to the persuader. This is problematic as in our electronic society the audience is the one with the most power, not the persuader.
As we stated before, the audience often ignores persuasive messages. We can often scroll past ads on websites, change the channel on tv from commercials to a new show, and even if an ad is playing, we can look away and do something else until it is finished. The only way to control the audience in an electronic environment is to track what the audience enjoys and use that to gain their attention and identify with them. However, this information will likely be fragmented, which results in the audience still being in control as they are the ones that create meaning for themselves based off of what an ad presents. There is only so much persuaders can do in an electronic environment, and, as a result, this claim of Postman’s is not accurate. Lastly, we have Postman’s claim that we often have there are technologies at work providing unquestioned information. This is true. In our electronic society there are various companies that we could see as strong persuaders.
Once society has largely identified with a persuader, they begin to trust it even if they do not realize it. When we see a strong persuader in connection with something, we tend to be drawn to do what the supporter wants. A popular toy brand is going to attract more business than a small toy brand because people trust the popular one more. Furthermore, as Postman said we tend to trust certain technologies such as statistics. If a statistic is provided people will tend to believe it without question. One could argue that in this we find that Postman’s claim that persuaders hold to much power is correct.
However, this is not necessarily true. Firstly, the claim that people do not question statistics is questionable. People often question statistics, and want to know their source, so they can decide whether it is trustworthy. The Global Warming issue is just one example of how people in an electronic society tend to question statistics. People constantly argue over weather numbers about its existence or when the date at which we will not be able to stop it is. Statistics in our culture are at best a passing guess that we tentatively subscribe to based on source. Furthermore, In order for one of these invisible persuaders to be successful we must first have identified with it. In this the audience still holds power, especially because there are multiple cases of these persuaders, for instance brands, being discovered as untrustworthy and losing the audience’s support. A persuader is only successful as long as its audience chooses to identify with them.
However, weather literature could possibly prevent any of this is largely under question. However, as far as Postman’s argument that literature is superior goes, this is largely questionable. Back in the days before electronics there were trusted companies and people. This is nothing unique to the electronic age. The only thing that is new is that now we have ways of communicating with each other and boosting popularity of brands in instantly accessible ways. Not to mention that the blind faith of people is also not new. One of the most famous books in the world, the Bible, is a literate piece of media that people unquestionably follow the teachings of. Therefore, weather media is inferior for continuing the existence of invisible persuaders is defiantly under question.
With all of these issues and accuracies with Postman’s analysis of electronically mediated knowledge, it is difficult to say whether he is right about literature being superior. More likely than not it depends on what you need. If a person needs quick information then electronic media is superior, but if you need a detailed explanation then literature will likely be more helpful. Electronic media has not really caused any problems; however, it does carry on existing problems with other older forms of technology, and may cause them to become more prevalent. As a result, I would conclude that knowledge of electronic media is no better and no less than that of literate as they serve two different functions which are neither inherently bad or good.