Today I’d like to transcribe a bit from Neil Postman’s book The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), beginning on page 81:
Phil Donahue, as of this writing, has a television show that appears five times a week. He is a serious and responsible person who apparently believes that any subject can be—indeed, ought to be—“treated” on television. But even if he did not believe this, he would do so anyway: five shows a week, an hour a day, fifty-two weeks each year, leave little room for squeamishness, selectivity, or even old-fashioned embarrassment. After one has “treated” the defense budget, the energy crisis, the women’s movement, and crime in the streets, one inevitably must turn, whether quickly or slowly, to incest, promiscuity, homosexuality, sadomasochism, terminal illness, and other secrets of adult life. […]
For the moment, we must set aside the question of television’s trivialization of culture. (What, for example, would Sophocles make of anyone’s attempt to take a “quick look” at incest? What would Freud make of psychoanalysis being used as a vaudeville act?) There is a prior question that must be addressed: Why is television forcing the entire culture to come out of the closet? Why has the subject matter of the psychiatrist’s couch and the Confessional Box come to unashamedly into the public domain?
The answer, I think, is obvious, although, to be sure, there are those who obscure it by pressing on us naive theories about the malevolence of television executives. The plain facts are that television operates virtually around the clock, that both its physical and symbolic form make it unnecessary—in fact, impossible—to segregate its audience, and that it requires a continuous supply of novel and interesting information to engage and hold that audience. Thus, television must make use of every existing taboo in the culture. Whether the taboo is revealed on a talk show, made into a theme for a soap opera or situation comedy, or exposed in a commercial is largely irrelevant. Television needs material. And it needs it in a way quite different from other media. Television is not only a pictorial medium, it is a present-centered and speed-of-light medium. The bias and therefore the business of television is to move information, not collect it. Television cannot dwell upon a subject or explore it deeply, an activity for while the static, lineal form of typography is well suited. There may, for example, be fifty books on the history of Argentina, five hundred on childhood, five thousand on the Civil War. If television has anything to do with these subjects, it will do it once, and then move on. This is why television has become the principal generator of what Daniel Boorstin calls the “pseudo-event,” by which he means events that are staged for public consumption. The Academy Awards, the Miss America Contest, the “roasts” of celebrities, the Annual Country Music Association Awards, the battles of the network stars, press conferences, and the like exist because of television’s need for material, not reality’s. Television does not record these events; it creates them. And it does so not because television executives lack imagination but because they have an abundance of it. They know that television creates an insatiable need in its audience for novelty and public disclosure and that the dynamic visual imagery of television is not for the specialist, the researcher, or, indeed, for anyone wishing to practice analytic activity. To use a metaphor favored by Dorothy Singer, Jerome Singer, and Diana Zuckerman, watching television is like attending a party populated by people whom you do not know. Every few seconds you are introduced to a new person as you move through the room. The general effect is one of excitement, but in the end it is hard to remember the names of the guests or what they said or even why they were there. It is of no importance that you do, in any case. Tomorrow there will be another party. To this image must be added the fact that you will be induced to return by the promise not only of new guests to meet but of the possibility that each of them will disclose a secret of some considerable interest. In other words: Don’t go away. Tomorrow we’ll take a quick look at incest.
[Italicized emphasis his.]
That’s all I have time for right now. But think about how that translates over onto the internet today.
[Updated to correct how the italics had wound up inverted, which occurred in a lot of my earlier transcriptions. Fixed most of them by now: 5/11/2015.]