television and book

This post is adapted from an English essay from January 2018.

In the past decades, society has undergone a rapid and remarkable shift in communication with the development of electronic media. Such a shift in media outlets has garnered much attention from sociologists, educators, and others concerned with the effect – positive or negative – technology wrings on communication.

Writers and critics Sven Birkerts and Neil Postman posit that the rise of technology has contributed to, if not caused, the decline in American education in their “Into the Electronic Millennium” and “The Medium is the Metaphor.” These essays indicate that the transition from print to electronic, two media dissimilar in components and expressible content, has impacted our comprehension skills, learning ability, and access to material. 

For centuries, the written word has reigned supreme as the epitome of human expression. Its creation arose from the need to express more than smoke signals or spoken word could. In Greece, oral poetry held this illustrious position until the age of Plato, when philosophy rose to the fore of the academic scene and demanded a more secure medium for expression (Birkert). The oral poetry of the ancient Greeks compares to the printed word of today in its communicative significance.

Ancient Greek scribes (Image from the Granger Collection)

Given its allowance for such “refined” expression as philosophy, society has long regarded the written word as a medium for academic work. In school, educators oftentimes emphasize the use of print sources rather than internet sources by dint of the greater regard held for the former in academia.

This association with learnedness and the printed word relates to the amount of analysis demanded of the reader to process the content. To simply read the text, one must connect the verbal sound to the printed symbol, then link that symbol with the surrounding to create a word, a sentence, and a paragraph.

Beyond that, the matter of comprehension requires an understanding of the words’ meanings, a correct interpretation of the author’s tone, and the ability to negotiate the world of abstraction (Postman). The print-intelligent consumer must “dwell comfortably… in a field of concepts and generalizations”, for the printed word less commonly concerns itself with concrete images (Postman).

application blur business close up
Photo by Pixabay on

Of all of the factors of print orientation that media theorists like Neil Postman have analyzed, the logical sequence and thorough analytic ability of it especially makes it the best medium through which man may engage experience. A reader joins a conversation with the writer through the order of print. This engagement transforms monologues into dialogues. Books, the printed word, one may argue, are the reason modern society exists. 

Beginning in the 20th century, television threatened the prominence of print on the communication field. The convenience and speed of communication that television provided newscasters, businesses, and anyone else with information to dispense ascertained the programming of electronic media in society.

This new media has expedited the release of information, bringing with it a feature that the printed work lacks: stimuli. Where the printed word needs no more than an attentive reader to relate information, a television screen must glow with stimuli to hold the viewer’s attention.

Cartoon from The Meta Picture

In his evaluation of television’s role on American society, Postman offers an allegory of American culture to the focal points of American history. For example, in the mid- and late-18th century, Boston represented the American spirit of political radicalism rampant at the time; in the mid-19th century, New York City represented the characteristic melting-pot view of America (Postman). Today, Postman deemed Las Vegas the focal point of America, a city symbolic of the contemporary American spirit of entertainment.

While print provided a venue for political philosophy, television best fits the needs of visual imagery. Adopting television over print exchanges the seriousness and clarity of the written word for the stimuli and rapidity of electronic expression. We have a greater volume of information at our fingertips, but not necessarily a greater quality.

The evanescence of television means that the viewer more often passively watches content rather than actively engages. This transience dulls the academic merit of television so that professionals do not employ it with the same respect as the printed word.

television vs books
Comic from Cagle Cartoons

Given its demand for stimulation, television serves different informational messages than books, delivering “fragmented conversations” rather than full discussions (Postman). The medium determines the content, as the difference in presentations between print and screen demonstrate, and, according to Postman in “The Medium is the Metaphor”, the medium speaks to the culture of a society. 

Just as the invention of the Gutenberg printing press jolted media in the Middle Ages, so the development of technology has shocked print. Taking center stage in the play of self-expression, television has altered the public discourse of America. To ask Postman or Birkerts, communication has shriveled and spiraled to absurdity because of the increasing centrality of television (Postman).

As previously discussed, Postman believes that the media around which a society crafts its communication determines the content expressed. Because television cannot express serious topics as well as books, given its dependence on visuals and stimuli more than structure and analytic prowess, it falls short in its public discourse. As television-based epistemology increases, we are “getting sillier by the minute” (Postman).

Cartoon by Bill Watterson

Postman attacks not television programs themselves, but rather the degenerate effects of exchanging page for screen. Television, unlike books, does not demand active participation in the information, and viewers thus lose the opportunity to engage with the material – a key step in the learning process. 

In “Into the Electronic Millennium”, Birkerts associates the rise in the electronic transmission of information to the decline in education, reading comprehension, and aptitude scores, and has contributed to the growing irrelevance of the arts. Dependence on insta-news and data available at the click of a button has eroded critical thinking. 

As society shifts from print media with its analytic, logical nature to electronic with its fragmented, instantly gratifying nature, it loses some degree of its ability to comprehend and learn. It trades analytical skills for convenience and philosophy for entertainment. As Sven Birkert’s and Neil Postman’s studies have found, the rise of television has contributed to a decline in education in America.

This is a generation that, surrounded on all sides by technology, may not appreciate the quality and value of the printed word. Doubtlessly a program on television will speak to these resultant losses. 

What do you think of the impact of television on comprehension and learning?

Works Cited
Birkerts, Sven. “Into the Electronic Millennium.” Boston Review, October 1991,
Postman, Neil. “The Medium is the Metaphor.” Go West UWG, University of West Virginia, n.d.,