[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]

Neil Postman (1931 - 2003)

Related: amusement - cultural pessimism - criticism

Back in 1985, the communications theorist Neil Postman announced that intellectual life was coming to an end. George Orwell's dystopian vision was wrong, Postman argued in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, but Aldous Huxley's was 20/20: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one." Why so? Because, as Postman interpreted Huxley, people will come to "adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. --Charles Paul Freund, 1999 via http://reason.com/9904/fe.cf.word.shtml [Jun 2006]

This pessimistic tale of the death of our culture seems new but is in fact a rehash of 19th century elitist attitudes towards reading and literacy.

English professor Patrick Brantlinger has just published The Reading Lesson, a valuable study of 19th-century elitist attitudes toward the "threat" posed by mass literacy. As Brantlinger reminds us, the reading of popular Victorian novels was viewed as "vampiric" and "addictive." Too much reading was an impediment to living; books and the fantasies they inspired ill-prepared their readers for real life. Some utopians posited happy, "unbooked" futures where people wouldn't waste their time reading at all. --Charles Paul Freund, 1999 via http://reason.com/9904/fe.cf.word.shtml [Jun 2006]


Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 - October 5, 2003) was a prominent American education and culture critic. For more than forty years, he was associated with New York University.

Inspired by the values of Classical and Enlightenment culture, Postman was something of an old-fashioned humanist, who in the face of extraordinary technological change in contemporary society held firmly to his beliefs that there is a limit to the promise of new technology, and that it cannot be a substitute for human values.

Postman was born and spent most of his life in New York City. In 1953, he graduated from State University of New York at Fredonia. He received a master's degree in 1955 and a doctorate in education in 1958, both from the Teachers College, Columbia, and started teaching at NYU in 1959.

In 1971, he founded the program in media ecology at the Steinhardt School of Education of NYU, attracting a large audience for his lectures and writings over the years. In 1993 he was appointed a University Professor, the only one in the School of Education, and was chairman of the department of culture and communication until last year.

Postman wrote 17 books and more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles for such periodicals as The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Time Magazine, The Saturday Review, The Harvard Education Review, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Stern, and Le Monde. He was also on the editorial board of The Nation.

Perhaps his best known title is Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), in which he criticized the television industry for turning serious issues into entertainment. He took offense at the presentation of television news with all the trappings of entertainment programming, including theme music and "talking hairdos." Only in the printed word, he felt, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed. The book was translated into eight languages and sold some 200,000 copies worldwide. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Postman

Printing [...]

Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided. The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression. Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into a sordid if not a murderous emotion. Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.--Neil Postman [...]

Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) - Neil Postman

  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) - Neil Postman [Amazon.com]
    Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), is a controversial book by Neil Postman in which he argues that mediums of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them, that television is the primary means of communication for our culture, that television has the property of converting conversations into entertainment and so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared, since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues. ("Conversations" in the sense here of a culture communicating with itself).

    [...] Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from the vision offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss and voluntarily sacrifice their rights. Postman sees television's entertainment value as a "soma" for the contemporary world, and he sees contemporary mankind surrendering its rights in exchange for entertainment. (Note that there is no contradiction between an intentional "Orwellian" conspiracy using "Huxleyan" means, which is an argument advanced in the later book The Unreality Industry: the deliberate manufacturing of falsehood and what it is doing to our lives by Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis (New York: Carol Pub. Group, 1989). Postman evidently did not disagree, since he provided a blurb for this book.) --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death [Jun 2006]

    your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products

    Managed Hosting by NG Communications