Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Neil Postman

I was just thinking of writing something about Neil Postman, and here Rod Dreher posts about him this morning.

I've admired Postman since I was a teenager, and think every young person should read his books before plunging too deeply into a virtual world. He was one of the world’s great noticers – to use David Foster Wallace’s metaphor, he wanted us to be aware of the water we swim in.

Postman's central idea, after Marshall McLuhan, was that the media shapes the message. Stories -- including the stories that tell us where we came from and where we are in the world -- are different when they are told around a campfire vs. when they are symbols in a book, vs. when they are digitally morphed on a screen.

In his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that, for its first 150 years, the United States was a print society -- the first presidents would probably not have been recognized had they walked down the street. Their images were not important, but their words and ideas were. Lincoln and Douglas spoke to farmers for hours in summer fields, using oratory that, when transcribed, creates far more complex prose than what we silently read today.

In the age of television, Postman notes, (he died as the Internet was just coming into its own) everything -- politics, religion, life -- is presented as entertainment, and we are often passive spectators. We cannot remember the words of most leaders, except as sound bites, but our presidents have been handsome, even movie stars. William Howard Taft and Abraham Lincoln could not be presidents today.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman noted that childhood itself is a concept that was little-used in oral cultures; the young were trained how to live, but they were not educated in the sense we think of today. Childhood was an invention of the printing press, that time after infancy and before full adulthood when people learned to read, and to be familiar with the things everyone thought ought to be read. In the 1600s through the 1900s, people believed children to be innocent, set up separate games and places for them, dressed them in clothes very different than those worn by adults. Today, he said, all these things are changing -- children are assumed to be more adult, and adults more childlike.

He did not hate or shun technology, even though one of his last books was entitled Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. He allowed that television takes and gives -- overt hatred, he believed, looks silly on television, and has declined.

Rather, he understood that, when we use a single window on the world, we forget what lies outside the boundaries. We tend to ignore the parts of the world that are not Googlable, bored by the forms of democracy and piety that have not become vaudeville.

I think about that when I see each new kind of writing – e-mail, Facebook, texting – become less like epistles and more like semaphore. They are not inherently bad – I’m writing this blog post on the Internet – but I want people to find a balance, keep technology in the appropriate place, and retain the capacity for prose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brian, your articulate encapsulation of Postman's concepts inspire readers. Congratulations on not only gaining awareness of the water you swim in, but in also swimming against the current so eloquently.