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I am currently reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. Below is a good mini-dissertation on the man and his cultural significance. I am not far into the book and already disagree with a few of his opinions, but he has certainly made many relevant points.
Neil Postman, RIP
Culture, Technology, and the Modern Soul
On October 5, 2003, Neil Postman, one of America’s most insightful critics of modern media and technology, passed away at the age of 72. An NYU professor for over forty years, Postman was a prolific author and lecturer, and his twenty books and over two hundred essays and articles had a lasting resonance with contemporary life.
Like so many of the best critics, Postman cannot easily be labeled “conservative” or “liberal.” Although he served for a time on the editorial board of the leftist magazine The Nation, he showed over his career a general ambivalence toward any particular political program. He will be remembered above all for pushing his readers to engage in a thoughtful recollection of the past in order to see the present, and the future, more clearly.
Postman believed that by mistaking technological progress for human progress, we have lost the ability to direct our lives toward higher pursuits. In our age of technology and mass media, he argued, we indulge in the endless pursuit of appetite upon appetite, stunting individuals and stultifying society.
In his best-known book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1984), Postman delivered the most scathing attack on our television culture since Newton Minow’s 1961 speech that dubbed TV a “vast wasteland.” And Postman’s attack cut far deeper than Minow’s, because instead of confining himself to the content of television programming, Postman criticized the medium itself. By eclipsing, and in some instances, threatening to replace altogether, the written word and our literary culture, television trivializes the serious and noble pursuits of human life—politics, religion, education, art, and commerce; they all become mere entertainment, Postman argued.
This trivialization at best makes existence shallow and stupid; at worst, it “creates a culture without moral foundation.” Postman explored these consequences further in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), where he described the uneasy tension in nineteenth-century America between the worldviews of “traditional” culture and “technological” culture. In our day, he argued, this tension has turned into an active conflict, one in which the technological is clearly emerging the victor, and has begun to dominate our cultural and political life completely. The era we live in is “antihistorical, information-saturated, technology-loving.”
Postman described how our tools prejudice and limit our interaction with the world. As the saying goes, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Why stop there? “To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.”
But, Postman said, the worst symptoms of the age of “Technopoly” aren’t even related to our machines or our tools; they are deep within us, in our assumptions and our mindset. For instance, Postman scathingly criticized the rise of “scientism,” which is “not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world,” but also “the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called ‘science’ can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority.”
Postman of course offered no easy solutions to the problems he described. He himself chose partial withdrawal: according to one of his NYU colleagues, Postman “wrote with a pen, never used e-mail, owned no computer and had no regrets about never going online.” Very few of us would want to disengage from our technology-dominated world even to that small extent—but Postman’s writings give us the means to step back and reflect on the role technology plays in our lives, even in the midst of Technopoly.
The Editors of The New Atlantis, “Neil Postman, RIP,” The New Atlantis, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 107-108.
The following excerpt is from “Technology, Culture, and Virtue” by Patrick J. Deenen, an article found in The New Atlantis, Summer 2008. His thesis is basically that our new technologies, the mark of our generation, are at war with nature. Interesting to think on…
We have embraced technologies that are destructive of the most fundamental technology—culture itself—and which, in their destruction of the very natural order from which we ultimately derive sustenance, threaten our future and that of our children. Rather than seeking to repair the very culture that our war against nature has all but destroyed, we seek to find new technologies that can allow us to continue to live in “global ignorance.” We crave to continue the condition of living thoughtlessly, of not having to think beyond the span of our own lifetimes, to recognize our debts to the past and our obligations to the future… As has been described by Jason Peters, editor of a fine volume on Berry, it’s like heavy traffic. Heavy traffic is always other people. When you say “traffic was terrible,” you’re never talking about yourself.
I have decided to transform this home page into something resembling a blog. The plan I have in mind is that it will serve AntiFacebook League members by keeping them updated on significant (and perhaps sometimes insignificant) news. This news will preferably be on the subject at hand, namely, opposing Facebook, but I make no guarantee that my wandering mind will not occasionally jump off the beaten trail. So, we shall see what we shall see, shan’t we?
Well, I must admit that I am excited about this page. Now I have the opportunity to post random tidbits of goodness that do not fit in elsewhere. Here is a starter… below is a segment of an article by Mr. James Bowman, a very intelligent film critic I occasionally read. He speaks sagely on the subject of the addictive internet.
Intuitively, however, I feel that my time spent online has robbed me of at least some of my powers of concentration, and I believe that a very significant component, if not the principal one, of intelligence is the power of concentration. Or, to put it the other way around, stupidity is the inability to focus, and my ability to focus has become severely compromised. Professor Cowan pooh poohs another research finding that “periodically checking your e-mail lowers your cognitive performance level to that of a drunk. If such claims were broadly correct,” he writes, “multitasking would pretty rapidly disappear simply because people would find that it didn’t make sense to do it.” Well, it doesn’t make sense to get drunk either, but people haven’t stopped doing that, so far as I can tell.
Indeed, the experience of the Internet seems to be like that of a drug in other ways, most notably in being addictive. I am happy noodling away on my computer, but, as with all drugs, the happiness is a product of what that artificial focus doesn’t allow you to attend to — which are the kinds of experience that the focus has taken you away from. All attention is choice, but the easy choices of the online world rob you of the ability to make harder ones, producing a different kind of knowing — for example, the kind that comes from the time it takes to plow through a Victorian novel and learn about its multitude of characters and absorb the dense texture of its prose as well as the little incidental facts about Victorian life that you might know if someone extracted them from the novel for you and put them up on the Internet as bullet points — if you ever happened to stumble on the site.
This is the way in which focus and intelligence are one, since focus is what is required to produce the depth of knowledge that it takes to understand a different culture and set of assumptions about the world than your own. And it is just that which seems to me to be lacking among those who have been educated by or with the Internet. It is the difference between information and knowledge, and a difference which few people are any longer well-equipped to comprehend. That the distinction is increasingly an arcane one, however, is not the fault of the Internet. Or not primarily, anyway. Our education system, especially education in the arts and humanities, has been doing its level best to obscure it for a generation now. For it, too, has no interest in understanding other cultures, or even our own up until 40 years or so ago. That may seem a paradoxical thing to say in the era of multiculturalism, but the level of engagement with other cultures which the multiculturalists want to take us to is pretty superficial, and they tend to ignore or minimize differences, for instance those of primitive honor cultures, that are not politically correct.
Actually, it’s not the Internet itself but the culture of the Internet that is to blame. I hate to keep picking on Tyler Cowen, because I am a fan of his economic thought, but I can’t resist citing his use of the example of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He acknowledges that the opera “represents a great achievement of the Western canon” — gee, thanks, says Mozart — but he points to the fact that it takes three or four hours to watch and listen to in its entirety, even though this is still a lot less time than it takes to read a novel by Dickens. And it is in Italian. And good seats are expensive. But never mind all that. Just look at what the Internet can give you in return for not making the effort to see and appreciate Mozart’s opera. This is what he writes:
Instead of experiencing the emotional range of Don Giovanni in one long, expensive sitting, on the Web we pick the moods we want from disparate sources and assemble them ourselves. We take a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from iTunes, and some images — perhaps or own digital photos — capturing the sublime beauty of the Grand Canyon. Even if no single bit looks very impressive to an outsider, to the creator of this assemblage it is a rich and varied inner experience. The new wonders we create are simply harder for outsiders to see than, say, the fantastic cathedrals of Old Europe.
Can it really be that he is comparing these bits and bobs of electronic effluvia to Chartres cathedral because, to someone who has never seen Chartres cathedral, or Don Giovanni, the “inner experience” they give him is as “rich and varied” as that of a great work of art is to someone who is equipped to appreciate it? I’m afraid he is. And he is very far from being alone. University English courses today routinely treat Shakespeare’s plays and Batman comics as being on the same plane and not meaningfully different from each other.
“It’s not so much about having information as it is about knowing how to get it,” writes Professor Cowen. But if you don’t already know the difference between King Lear and Batman, or between Chartres cathedral and a computer image of the Grand Canyon — or the Grand Canyon itself, for that matter — all the information in the world is going to be useless to you. Or, if not quite useless, useful only in trivial ways. As a professional critic, I notice that criticism itself is changing. I’m old enough to have been trained up to the job in the days when it was still thought by most if not all people that the object of criticism was, to use the title of our conference this weekend, the pursuit of truth.
Not definitive truth, not conclusive truth, not truth that left no room for other truths, but still truth — truth, perhaps, even as beauty, as Keats saw it, which I disagree with Peter Wood, who spoke this morning, in thinking not a lie but a poetic truth. In any case, truth certainly as something distinguishable from error. Now that a generation has grown up believing that that kind of truth is invidious, or “privileged” or authoritarian or hierarchical or, God help us, “patriarchal,” and that everybody has a right to his or her own truth, what we have instead of truth as the purpose of criticism— where it is not simply Marxist political analysis — is “intertextuality.” That is, we harvest as many points of connection as we can think of between King Lear and Batman and between both of them and the universe of texts awaiting us out there on the Internet — and then we put in the links between them.
It’s a highly idiosyncratic exercise, since there are an infinite number of texts and an infinite number of possible connections. That’s how you end up with that grab-bag as outlined by Professor Cowen, “a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from iTunes,” and so forth. The only real connection between them is in the fancy of the critic, who thus steps forward as the real hero of the critical enterprise whose only aim is to enhance his own “rich and varied inner experience.” We go to the Internet to find reflections of ourselves, not to acquire knowledge of others — and in particular the others who impressed previous generations as being among the greatest of those who had preceded them in the pursuit of truth. If we have stopped valuing their accomplishments, which is what it means to value them as equivalent to a joke on YouTube, we have already reached a middle stage on the road to forgetting them entirely, which is why — I think — so many of the formerly smart are having trouble remembering how to read.