First, I must admit that I’m a fan of Neil Postman, the late American cultural thinker. I recommend his book Amusing Ourselves To Death if you want to understand the effects that technology has on humanity (for a shorter synopsis of that book, check out his speech here). Similar ideas can also be found in the great documentary Connections by James Burke.
What I wanted to know is how to solve the problems that we face from blindly adopting technology. Postman suggests that we should borrow the 18th Century way of thinking from the Enlightenment in order to navigate our modern times (the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin). He briefly goes over their philosophies and how we can adopt their way of thinking.
One of the most important points Postman makes is that modern man has lost a purposeful narrative of religion. The narrative that has replaced it is using technology and being satisfied with one’s consumer products.
…when people do not have a satisfactory narrative to generate a sense of purpose and continuity, a kind of psychic disorientation takes hold, followed by a frantic search for something to believe in or, probably worse, a resigned conclusion that there is nothing to find.
I write for those who are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose.
But attempts at constructing a narrative won’t work, because…
There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.
The 18th Century marked the beginning of the modern world, not unlike how the Ancient Greeks marked the beginning of the Western world. In fact, the Englightenment was partially due to a re-discovering of the Ancient Greek writing. All the founding fathers of America studied them, and used those ideas to birth America. But how many American men study the Ancient Greeks today?
Today’s society has been taken over by a zombie march of progress instead of the accumulation of wisdom. This idea of progress is relatively new. In the past, science was a pursuit of truth, without any immediate applications, but now everything must be done to make humans happy or improve their standard of living (i.e., bombard their senses with cheap and accessible entertainment and feed them with subsidized corn and sugar).
The eighteenth century invented [the idea of progress], elaborated it, and promoted it, and in so doing generated vast resources of vitality, confidence, and hope. But the eighteenth century also criticized and doubted it, initiating powerful arguments about its limitations and pitfalls.
These limitations and pitfalls are rarely discussed today. 3D movies are progress. Internet is progress. Porn-on-demand is progress. Google Glass is progress. And so on. A cultural obsession with progress results in spiritual emptiness and a confused people. Progress has replaced god.
We can get a clear idea of the seriousness and skepticism with which European intellectuals regarded technological progress by reading a letter Lord Byron sent prior to a speech he gave to the House of Lords early in the nineteenth century. The letter summarizes his speech. He spoke against a proposed law which would apply the death penalty to anyone deliberately breaking a machine, as those people called “Luddites” were in the habit of doing. Byron tried to show how the rise of factories made workers useless and desperate, and how their way of life was being destroyed. Byron was not a Luddite himself, and, in fact, understood the advantages of mechanized progress. But he saw in such progress a tainted bargain—economic growth on one hand, the loss of self-respect and community vitality on the other. (The law was passed, with only three votes against it.)
Postman gives us the intellectual tools to question today’s technology:
The most obvious question to be asked about any new technology—for example, interactive television, virtual reality, the Internet, or, for that matter, doorknobs and toasters that “understand” human speech—is, What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem? The automobile solved some very important problems for most people, but in doing so, poisoned our air, choked our cities with traffic, and contributed toward the destruction of some of the beauty of our natural landscape. Antibiotics certainly solved some significant problems for almost all people, but in doing so, resulted in the weakening of what we call our immune systems. Television solved several important problems, but in solving them changed the nature of political discourse, led to a serious decline in literacy, and quite possibly made the traditional process of socializing children impossible.
What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change? This question needs to be asked because significant technological change always results in a realignment of power.
…I find it useful to ask of any technology that is marketed as indispensable, What problem does it solve for me? Will its advantages outweigh its disadvantages? Will it alter my habits and language, and if so, for better or for worse
I will use technology when I judge it to be in my favor to do so.
We’ve reached a point where the newest technology hype coming out of Silicon Valley offers only marginal benefits to our lives. Having an app that reserves a restaurant in 10 seconds is handy, but calling to make a reservation isn’t particularly burdensome. Everyone is quick to look at the benefits that such technologies give, but what do we lose from them? Do we lose the basic ability to communicate with other people? Of having empathy and patience for our fellow man?
Postman also understands information is not knowledge, and that it’s possible to have tons of information but stupid citizens who don’t understand the political process that dominates them.
…the concept of “information” was different from what it is today. Information was not thought of as a commodity to be bought and sold. It had no separate existence, as it does in our age; specifically, it was not thought to be worthwhile unless it was embedded in a context, unless it gave shape, texture, or authority to a political, social, or scientific concept, which itself was required to fit into some world-view. No one was ridiculed more in the eighteenth century, especially by Jonathan Swift, than the pedant, the person who collected information without purpose, without connection to social life…
The problem addressed in the nineteenth century was how to get more information to more people, faster, and in more diverse forms. For 150 years, humanity has worked with stunning ingenuity to solve this problem. The good news is that we have. The bad news is that, in solving it, we have created another problem, never before experienced: information glut, information as garbage, information divorced from purpose and even meaning.
There is no problem caused in today’s society by a lack of information. Bad education is not caused by lack of information. Neither is crime, world hunger, or wars. Information without context is useless; it’s mere trivia.
It is also assumed that, as we proceed into a postmodern world, we are bereft of a narrative that can provide courage and optimism; that we are facing what Vaçlav Havel and others have called “a crisis in narrative.” Old gods have fallen, either wounded or dead. New ones have been aborted. “We are looking,” he said, “for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, new control systems, new institutions.” In other words, we seek new narratives to provide us with “an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archtypical wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith.”8 No one must underestimate the difficulties in this.
And so what narrative have guys like me sought out? Tradition, masculinity, strength, conquest, hard-work. Technology doesn’t fill a man’s spirit, and neither does information. Like Postman, I have looked to the past for answers that can give me meaning today, because I know that consumer messages or new technology don’t have the answer.
There is very little the culture wants to do for children except to make them into consumers. A child is someone who has money to buy things. An adult is someone who has more money to buy things.
The whole idea of schooling, now, is to prepare the young for competent entry into the economic life of a community so that they will continue to be devoted consumers.
The average American graduate student cannot tell you, given a thousand-year margin of error, when the alphabet was invented, or, given a two-hundred-year margin of error, when the printing press with movable type was invented, let alone say anything intelligible about the psychological or social implications of those inventions. To think that these are the people to whom we will entrust the uses of the information superhighway would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.
…the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young.
In the end, Postman argues that education has failed to teach reason and skepticism, two prime qualities of the Enlightenment. At the same time, having educated minds is a nation’s best resource, creating citizens who can doubt authority and identify propaganda that hurts the nation. But we no longer aim to create this type of society in America. Instead, we give a tiny elite a proper education while the rest are reduced to the learning of facts and obedience. Let them have iPhones!
This book brought up a lot of good points, but it did meander at times. It’d be best if you read Amusing Ourselves To Death first. Unless you love that volume, you may not get too much value from this Postman offering.