Neil Postman’s Prophetic Writing About Media & Society

16Nov20

Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) holding a TV aerial

35 years ago, he predicted the political & social implosion we have witnessed in 2020

By Casey Chalk

Thirty-five years ago, New York University professor of communication Neil Postman predicted the political and social implosion we have witnessed in 2020. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman criticised television as a medium of information that, regardless of its content, caused Americans to understand all of public discourse through the lens of entertainment.

Postman called television a propagator of “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” That seems an apt description of the first presidential debate, as well as of broader trends we have witnessed this year. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that our digital age, in innumerable ways, aggravates our social and political distemper.

Postman the Prophet

The NYU professor was surely prophetic. “Our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics,” he cautioned.

“We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organised around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic message.”

What Postman perceived in television has been dramatically intensified by smartphones and social media. A videotaped confrontation between a black, male birdwatcher and a white, female dog owner in New York City’s Central Park in May was posted to Twitter and received 40 million views. The woman lost her job less than twenty-four hours later.

Postman also recognised that technology was changing our mental processes and social habits. “Television has by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education.” Certainly this is truer now when our youth — many of whom are learning virtually (perhaps and oxymoron?) — are educated by the vast, untamed wilderness of the Internet and social media.

Yet all citizens are undergoing this same transformation. Our digital devices undermine social interactions by isolating us, as demonstrated by the remarkable artistic work of Eric Pickersgill. Pickersgill photographs deviceless people pretending to have mobile devices in their hands. He says:

“This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers, while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.”

Moreover, Postman worried about who most benefited from this technological revolution. He cautioned:

“Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organisations, but have solved very little of importance to most people, and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

Today corporations like Google and Amazon collect data on Internet users based on their browsing history, the things they purchase, and the apps they use. When I get into my car on Sunday mornings, my iPhone, without my asking, reminds me how to get to my church. As for new problems, we have increased addictions (technological and pornographic); increased loneliness, anxiety, and distraction; and inhibited social and intellectual maturation.

Many Americans tuned in to the presidential debate looking for something substantial and meaty that might perhaps clarify and help moderate the centrifugal forces of the most chaotic year of their lives. Instead, all they got was more of the same. But what did we really expect? It was simply another manifestation of the incoherence and vitriol of cable news and our social media feeds. “When, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility,” warned Postman.

Technology Is Never Neutral

As a student of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Postman believed that the medium of information was critical to understanding its social and political effects. Every technology has its own agenda. Postman worried that the very nature of television undermined American democratic institutions. He noted:

The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see. Moreover, television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music.

This is far truer of the Internet and social media, where more than a third of Americans, and almost half of young people, now get their news. All one has to do is scroll or click to move from one piece of data to the next. Moreover, with smartphones now ubiquitous, the Internet has replaced television as the “background radiation of the social and intellectual universe.”

Yet these technologies are far from neutral. They are, rather, “equipped with a program for social change.” Postman cites research conducted in the 1980s that proved that virtual learning (via television) was inferior to learning from reading and person-to-person teaching.
Read the rest of this essay at https://tinyurl.com/y2h992vz


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)
50th Anniversary Edition


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