Ch. 3 – Typographic America

(Continuing with my book club…)

In this chapter, Postman recounts some of the major changes that occurred in America with the introduction of the printing press… Yes, books. But also a ravenous hunger for newspapers. He describes the general public as being quite literate and hungry for the written word, as there were no other informative media available other than the public orator who would come and speak in public forums. They were very well attended.

In the 1770s, even the poorest of common folk could read. Reading was not considered an “elitist” activity at all. This really made me think of how things are today, where literacy rates often decline in relation to socio-economic status. Is this in part because of the competing new media (movies, video games, television…) that discourages traditional literacies ? I think this may be a direction that Postman heads in future chapters.

I found incredible parallels between the emergence of newspapers in the late 17th/early 18th centuries and blogs in the 21st century. Postman describes how in the late 17th century how newspapers became so important in Boston to “combat the spirit of lying” that was going on in politics. However, the second edition of the Publick Occurrences never happened, as it was suppressed by the Governor for being too truthful (truth hurts!). Thank goodness for our freedoms of speech. By 1730 there were seven successfully published newspapers in the 4 colonies. By 1800, 180 papers were published.

Newspapers were referred to as the “spring of knowledge. The general source throughout the nation, of every modern conversation.” Per capita at end of 18th century, there were more newspapers in the US than there were in England due to America’s newfound freedoms.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets (and newspapers), which are circulated for a day within incredible rapidity and then expire.” He goes on to write that just as the firearm equalized nobility with the “vassal”, so did printing and the post (just like blog posts). Can you imagine if the common man of the 17th/18th century had access to some medium to easily publish his/her thoughts to the culture of the times? Information has truly revolutionized our society. There are now somewhere between 50 and 150 million blogs out there.

Today, anyone with Internet access (or a cell phone) can blog. Bloggers have changed reporting and the speed at which information reaches the masses. Blogging empowers the ‘common man’ who does not have access to publish in conventional information outlets (news, published books/articles, magazines,…). It has helped, just like the firearm and newspaper, as de Tocqueville put it, to “equalize nobility with the vassal” (YouTube debates?). Along the same lines, it can empower students and give them a voice like never before. Of course, with such power needs to come responsibility – and that also must be taught in parallel. Cyberbullying, for example, is related to this newfound power of youth minus the responsibility.

I don’t think that Postman was thinking about such parallels when writing this chapter since his book was written in 1985, long before blogging, podcasting and the like truly took off. I wonder what he thinks about such forms of communication that empower the individual like never before. I don’t think this type of activity would fall in his thesis of “amusing ourselves to death”. Of course, these new information tools can be used for trivial purposes, no doubt. Our challenge is to educate our students and colleagues on the empowerment that comes from having a powerful voice without boundaries. If we have important things to say, they are not merely relegated to the bulletin board, hallway display, or faculty room/water cooler chatter. I think a major hurdle is to shift from the thinking that we either have no voice or our voice does not matter to participating in global conversations about what we are passionate about. If we have nothing to say or are not passionate about anything, that says something, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s amazing what this one chapter sparked in my mind. I look forward to more such tangents.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Blogging, bullying, communication, culture, Internet, social, society

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