Thinking, Literacy,
and the Televisual Age

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Modified August 8, 2003

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking Penguin, 1985), Prof. Neil Postman (Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University) distinguishes between three periods:

I. The Oral Age roughly up to 700 BC. Before the invention of alphabetic writing and the rise of literacy.

II. The Age of Literacy from roughly 700 BC through roughly 1950.

A. The Age of Writing through roughly 1500
    (the invention of the printing press in 1450's)
B. The Typographic Age after 1500

III. The Age of Television. (Precursor inventions included telegraphy, telephone, and photograph. Age of Television also includes the personal computer and internet.)

The following chart summarizes the key contrasts between the Age of Literacy and the (current) Age of Television (The same information in non-chart form.)

Age of LiteracyThe Televisual Age
Reader must (usually) assume that she is removed in time and space from author Electricity cancels time and space.
Reader must use her imagination and think with ideas and concepts (pictures not provided) Pictures are provided, and constantly changed
Reader must get past the marks on the page to the words and sentences, and past the words, etc. to the meaning and ideas. Images and feelings dominate, esp. relatively simple and violent feelings. (Excitement is at a premium.) Ideas, if any, are imprecise.
Reader must be willing to suspend judgment until an entire discourse is presented. (One must be able to keep in mind starting points, intermediate conclusions, and final conclusions.) Viewers are expected to respond immediately, and differently, as one episode rapidly follows another.
Reader must be able to follow a reasoned argument, not just from a few premises to conclusion (in simple reasoning) but also from many premises, through intermediate conclusions, to final conclusions. Viewer is expected to do little or no reasoning. In stories, characters tend not to be complex or have much of a history.
Reader must be able to evaluate arguments:
  • Do premises support conclusions?
  • Are "facts" solidly based on reliable evidence?
  • Is reasoning appropriate to the subject- matter?
  • Audience is not expected to be able to evaluate positions, let alone multi-step arguments for a position.
    Reader must take what is written seriously, and be willing to act differently if persuaded by what is read. Promotes active citizenship. Viewers not expected to take seriously what is viewed or "do anything" as a result of what they see. Promotes passivity.

    The Relevance of These Distinctions

    to Critical Thinking, to Ethics, and to Philosophy

    Critical thinking, ethics, and philosophy as we know them are products of the Age of Literacy. Major philosophical and ethical traditions appear in literate cultures. (Not only does Western philosophy begin after the invention of the alphabet, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian ethics and philosophies all appear in cultures where a significant minority could read.)

    Critical thinking, ethics, and philosophy use habits of literacy. They work with concepts. They requires suspension of judgment while positions are being presented. They employ reasoning and use reason to evaluate reasoning. They require us to seek confirmation for alleged facts. And they are concerned with serious matters.

    In the past these skills and practices had to struggle to make room for themselves against mental habits based in an oral, preliterate culture. (This is part of the meaning of Plato's Cave Allegory.) Within the context of the age of literacy they also have had to contend with lazy, prejudiced, and manipulative uses of reasoning. Today they additionally must struggle against the habits of the televisual age, which threaten to overwhelm the thought patterns of the literate and typographic age.

    The Culture of Literacy asks (as do critical thinking, ethics, and philosophy): Is it consistent? Can it be backed up logically? The Culture of the Televisual Age asks, Is it exciting? Is it cool? Do I like it right now?

    Moral (for students of Critical Thinking, Philosophy, and Ethics):

    To advance in these activities you will have invest time and effort to counter-act some of the unfortunate habits that prevail in our time. You will be asked to develop further whatever mental habits you have that are associated with the Typographic Age.

    Two Misunderstandings to Avoid:

    The televisual mind affects the way we experience non-televised events. To all that I have said the televisual mind might draw the lesson, "Garrett hates television." (Note how this associates a human being, whom you can see, with a violent emotion, whose expressions are easily stereotyped.) A judgment like this would miss the point entirely. Indeed, missing the point is what televisual processing--it is hard to call it thinking--does frequently when faced with criticism.

    A more accurate summary would be to say that Garrett, influenced by Prof. Postman, says that television and related technologies tend to weaken important habits related to rationality, habits that used to be reinforced by our experience with written and typographic communication. These habits of rationality are crucial to being active citizens and pursuing philosophy.

    Given what I have said, you might be tempted to say that rationality is going to be defeated by our society's increased emphasis on televisual technologies, and thus philosophy will die out.

    That pessimistic conclusion would be premature. Habits related to literacy and printed books can coexist alongside new ones associated with television and the internet, even if the new habits tend to conflict with and undermine the old. The rational habits associated with literacy can be preserved and renewed if we make a deliberate attempt. We can be more active citizens and better thinkers if we are conscious of the factors in currently popular technologies that work to make us passive and unthinking.

    P. S. I suppose I should address one more possible misunderstanding. Prof. Postman's book was published in 1985, before the expansion of the Internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990's. Now there are philosophical discussion groups based on the email capacities of electronic technology. Whole philosophical classics authored in the Ages of Writing or Typography are directly available at no additional cost on the Internet. Email and websites can organize campaigns against unjust international institutions. As librarians will tell us, there are important collections of data accessible through the internet. (Note that you normally have to be a student or faculty and/or own your own computer plus pay for internet connection if you wish to use these capacities.)

    So I admit that some thoughtful things you could do with books and typewriters you can also do with computers and monitors. But one can still question whether the internet extension of television promotes thought or active citizenry, even when it does not militate against both. Is not most of the "activity" in "computer interactivity" merely the point-and-click (or "enter your name, address, and credit-card number") sort?


    Age of Literacy Compared with Televisual Age

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must (usually) assume that she is removed in time and space from author. In the Televisual Age, electricity cancels time and space.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must use her imagination and think with ideas and concepts (pictures are not usually provided). In the Televisual Age, pictures are provided, and constantly changed.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must get past the marks on the page to the words and sentences, and past the words, etc. to the meaning and ideas. In the Televisual Age, images and feelings dominate, esp. relatively simple and violent feelings. (Excitement is at a premium.) Ideas, if any, are imprecise.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must be willing to suspend judgment until an entire discourse is presented. (One must be able to keep in mind starting points, intermediate conclusions, and final conclusions.) In the Televisual Age, viewers are expected to respond immediately, and differently, as one episode rapidly follows another.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must be able to follow a reasoned argument, not just from a few premises to conclusion (in simple reasoning) but also from many premises, through intermediate conclusions, to final conclusions. In the Televisual Age, the viewer is expected to do little or no reasoning. In stories, characters tend not to be complex or have much of a history.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must be able to evaluate arguments:

  • Do premises support conclusions?
  • Are "facts" solidly based on reliable evidence?
  • Is reasoning appropriate to the subject- matter?
    In the Televisual Age, the audience is not expected to be able to evaluate positions, let alone multi-step arguments for a position.

    In the Age of Literacy, the reader must take what is written seriously, and be willing to act differently if persuaded by what is read. The process promotes active citizenship. In the Televisual Age, viewers are not expected to take seriously what is viewed or "do anything" as a result of what they see. The process promotes passivity.