Let me be blunt. Neil Postman is the reason I chose the path I’ve taken in my post-20s life. Period. At a point in my life when I was most deeply questioning my career in marketing and promotions, when I was most discontent with the direction my energies had gone, I took a stroll to my little, independent bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I went there fairly often to browse the shelves and pick up a book or two. Generally, I didn’t read the books from beginning to end, but they gave me something new to look at, and perhaps something to aspire to in some way.
On that one, faithful day, I remember picking up Michio Kaku’s book “Visions: How Science will Revolutionize the 21st Century” and Postman’s “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.” I don’t believe I’d ever heard of either man at that point, but the blurbs on the back of each book were intriguing. Kaku’s book, for all the skill he has in jazzing up science and punctuating ideas about technology and the future, was another of those fleeting curiosities and soon I turned to Technopoly. It was the first book I’d read cover to cover in several years and I don’t believe I put it down once.
I began to read much more often and spent a lot of time with Postman’s ideas in the years that followed. I also started to tap into whatever I could find about media ecology, including some lurking around the online community of the Media Ecology Association. That was the first time I’d ever heard of Lance Strate, who eventually became my mentor at Fordham University and my friend. Lance was one of Postman’s many students at NYU in the graduate program in media ecology and helped me put a lot of personal touches on my understanding of who Neil Postman was as a whole human being.
Postman is known most widely for his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which was first published in 1985, and made a reputation for himself as the person to talk to about television if you wanted to hear something critical. Of course, the book is about much more than that and fits very neatly into a large body of work that spans several decades, but there’s the TV bit that people love to latch onto. This is so true that a professor I recently studied with, who I respect a great deal and had a strong influence on my thinking, clarified for the class when I raised Postman’s name that he was the “TV guy.”
It’s easy to understand why a person who was unafraid to question the value of television, and warn against some of the trade offs we make in adopting it so unwaveringly, would get the reputation as a TV critic, first and foremost. Put those ideas in the middle of the 1980s, without the competing influences of the Internet, and you have a man taking on the undisputed champion of American social and cultural life in its prime. To this day, despite the overwhelming power of personal computing and the Internet, to say nothing of mobile technology, most of us still build that little altar to the television in the middle of our living rooms.
For several years, I’ve been sitting on a VHS tape full of interesting segments from PBS and the like, given to me by a very generous friend who studied with Walter Ong. Most of my library’s Orality and Literacy books come from the same friend who encouraged me when I sought to get into academia some years ago. Over those years the technological capacity for transferring video from one format to another has become more accessible and affordable, but still requires the piecing together of multiple hardware items, software items, and the time required to get the whole orchestra to perform together. Yesterday, I was able to take the final step in extracting a 14+ minute segment from the PBS program Currents dedicated to the topic “Literacy Lost.” The segment embedded here is essentially Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” truncated and translated to television duration and style. I’ll let you watch before offering further comment:
First, my intent in this post is not to go over Postman’s ideas about technology, literacy, television, or culture. I will be writing about all of that fairly frequently, I expect. My treatment of this clip is simply to contribute something to his digital legacy by adding the video to YouTube and remarking on my connecting to him. I do think there are some interesting and amusing things to pick out from the clip, so I’ll do that here.
One of Postman’s most interesting and poignant narrative flourishes, and one that drives a large part of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is his mention of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, especially when juxtaposed with the Reagan-Mondale “debates.” Just imagine yourself sitting with a picnic basket, your kids, and a whole weekend ahead, listening to Abraham Lincoln speak for hours on end about abolition and westward expansion. What would you live blog or tweet?
Joan Ganz Cooney was president of the Children’s Television Workshop at the time and provides a counter to Postman’s critique. The creation of Sesame Street is in some good measure part of her legacy and she defends it strongly to the interviewer. I grew up on Sesame Street (Elmo was my high school graduation speaker in 1989 via Kevin Clash) and remember many of the language lessons and phonics very fondly. I suppose I remember them for the same reason that Jocko Henderson’s students remember his phonics rap and Joan Ganz Cooney’s niece was singing advertising jingles. They’re short, musical, and entertaining. It’s not about learning. It’s about the way we learn, the quality of the learning process, and our relationship to information, so while I enjoyed Sesame Street growing up and get a little twinge when someone criticizes it, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.
Muammar Gaddafi is in the news again as another US president shoots missiles at him. Very little has changed. People still can’t tell you where Libya is, and while public support for this military campaign doesn’t look like the support Reagan enjoyed, most of it is still based on the idea that “Gaddafi’s a madman. He’s very void of any rationale.”
From a broader perspective, this clip illustrates Postman’s point quite well. A man who dedicated his life to dealing with teaching, learning, and education by focusing on the environment of language and the awareness of the biases inherent in technology, and who published dozens of books, touched thousands of lives, and contributed a great deal to our understanding of culture accentuates a point-counterpoint debate on the merits of television and its effect on literacy in what amounts to bullet point form. In the process he somehow became ‘The TV guy.’ Thank goodness there are enough of us who care about his legacy and the deep body of scholarship that both preceded him and that has succeeded him to map his legacy closer to the territory of his life. Thank you Neil Postman.