Thursday, October 09, 2003


Neil Postman, modern inheritor of McLuhan's legacy, dead at 72

...these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, "The medium is the message."

He was my hero, and I never met him.

But for the past four years, I read his masterwork Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a book "about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right," twice a year, teaching it dilligently for five weeks a time. I poured through his essays, agreeing in turn with him and with Camile Paglie in their '91 Harper's co-interview She wants Her TV! He Wants His Book!. I scoured used bookstores for out-of-print earlyworks on teaching as, in turn, a subversive and conserving activity. And, as he grew to recognize the place of digital media in his theoretical standpoint, I relished the more recent emergence of Technopoly, and his triumphant return to redefining education, in his final works.

His term for our mutual field, Media Ecology, gave a focus and a metaphor for what we wanted to say; his legitimacy of the field through his professorship at NYU churned out hundreds of us, and sparked thousands more to rethink our society, unwilling to accept what is.

"The medium," he said, "is the metaphor" -- meaning that the way our technologies inherently streamline sense and prioritize meaning inevitably become templates for the way we see ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Building on the works of Innis and McLuhan before him, he clarified our discontent and gave us purpose; he made the modern study of media what it is, and what it could be.

Untypically, the New York Times obit says everything he would have wanted to say about the modern world of media, in that it misrepresents him terribly, saying
Dr. Postman's core message was that an immersion in a media environment shaped children's lives to their detriment, and society's.

In fact, however, Postman had no beef against media as a general category. It was the particular media environment which arose post-literacy, beginning with the telegraphic mindset of Hemmingway and the train schedule's relentless commodification of time in the last century, and as epitomized by the rise of television, which he saw as detrimental, on a societal level, and at that, only to public discourse -- that important stuff we talk about that makes us human, connected, aware and alive. To him, the downfall of our culture came with the gradual loss of our association with twice-abstracted symbol system that is the written word in all it's longform glory; the iconographic, fast-paces mediaspace that TV and later the web created was, he showed us in detail, antithetical to the high-order thinking which only extensive, objective, and literal thought could enable.

The Times makes him look like the king of all luddites. Rather, he was a metaintellectual, making his life's work to identify the gap between the ways of the tube and the way we, as a society, were able to bring our world to life, to sense, in the first place.

Neil would hate blogs -- he'd see their screen-fed shortform as prototypical of the modern delineralized media mindset which he made it his life's work to rail against -- so, while it's tempting to spend real time denying the blogform and making a real stab at a serious essay here, let's leave it at this:

Sorry, Neil, if most of us still struggle to understand. If it helps, there's a small handful of us who owe you our vocations, our critical minds, and our souls. We will remember you when we teach our children to turn on their minds -- and to turn off the TV.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:29 AM |

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