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Saturday, October 18, 2003

Neil Postman 1931 - 2003.

Neil Postman died of lung cancer on Sunday, October 5, 2003. He was a professor at New York University, specializing in the theory of communications and known for his perceptive criticisms of media and technology. I really enjoyed some of his books (readers will probably recognize Amusing Ourselves to Death, a powerful critique of the television industry).

There are some who dismiss him as a Luddite, and although he did not deny an appreciation for the historical movement he did not identify himself as one of them:

I am not at all a Luddite. I have, for example, no hostility toward new technologies and certainly no wish to destroy them, especially those technologies, like computers, that have captured the imagination of educators. Of course, I am not enthusiastic about them, either. I am indifferent to them. 1

Rather, Neil Postman devoted his life to the practical assessment of the costs of humanity's use of technology. He was motivated by a concern for the influence of media upon the cognitive and moral development of children, and media technology's debilitating effects upon literacy, language, religion and education. Conscious of technology's "Faustian bargain", he was a skeptic who couldn't help but question those who embraced the conveniences of technology with overwhelming enthusiasm (or what he might call a rash optimism). I'm just going to cite two passages helpful in understanding his perspective. First, in regards to visual media, specifically television, he said:

I am not against visual forms of communication except when they become so dominant that they displace the function of discursive or linguistic expression. Language by its nature is slow moving and hierarchical. It lays out a path of illumination to be followed step by step. It permits reflection.

You can evaluate the meaning of a sentence and say no to it. You can't say no to a picture.

When literacy declines and people repair to television for their news and political or religious views, analytic capabilities decline, as does the capacity for sustained reflection - that is, attention span. The capacity to comprehend context and continuity diminishes.

Language is always about context. When someone says "I was quoted out of context," they mean that if you knew the circumstances and conditions in which the words were imbedded, you would arrive at the correct interpretation.

Television always decontextualizes simply by presenting pictures. Pictures can't present historical background or psychological disposition. Images are a crude epistemology, stressing simultaneity and the instant without framework.

If television were a supplement to reading, the problem would not be serious. When television replaces reading it becomes a cultural catastrophe.

Secondly, responding to an audience of computer enthusiasts, he reminded them:

The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront -- spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.2

Given Neil Postman's writings, it may seem ironic to pay tribute to him by way of a blog, much less a website. But perhaps he would approve, in that by conveying his words to a broader audience on the web it may provoke us to further reflect on our everyday use and interaction with technology.

  1. From "Of Luddites, Learning & Life". TECHNOS Quarterly Winter 1993 Vol. 2 No. 4.
  2. From Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. Viking Press (November, 1986).
  3. "Informing Ourselves To Death" given at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) on October 11, 1990 in Stuttgart (sponsored by IBM-Germany).

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