Oh man, if you don’t know, your world is about to be rocked. Your mind melted. All of that.
Neil Postman (1931 — 2003) was an American critic and educator. He wrote seventeen books. His most famous (and controversial) was Amusing Ourselves to Death, a screed against television and how it turns everything into banal entertainment — including education and news. Just imagine FOX News during an election cycle and you’ll get the idea.
His interests were all over the place. He wrote on the disappearance of childhood, reforming public education, postmodernism, semantics and linguistics, and technopolies. He also wrote essays and lectured about lots of other things that you can find here if you scroll down long enough.
He was a professor of media ecology at New York University and died in 2003.
What did he say?
He said a lot of things, thus those seventeen books. But here are some Big Ideas that have stuck out to me:
The medium is the message. Borrowing from McLuhan, he explained that every medium — TV, radio, typography, oral transmission — changes and biases the message itself. The written word, for example, tends to bias the message towards linear thinking, logic, exposition, and delayed response. Video tends to bias towards the “peek-a-book world”: trivial content that vanishes in seconds, constantly flickering images, yet the viewer has a hard time turning away no matter the subject… because the medium is just so darn entertaining and engrossing. These biases mean that news from a newspaper and a television, even with the same subject, have two different messages.
Education ≠ entertainment. Shows like Sesame Street undermine schooling — “it encourages children to love school only if school is like Sesame Street.” School is about asking questions; TV is about passive consumption. School is about the development of language; TV demands attention to images. TV is always fun and entertaining; serious education is not. Postman lamented that by equating education with entertainment children would never learn the rigorous of serious schooling. “Sesame Street doesn’t teach children to love school or anything about school,” he said. “It teaches them to love television.”
Subjects should be taught as history. “Every teacher,” Postman said, “must be a history teacher.” Every subject has a fascinating history. Facts and dates are memorization, not understanding. To teach a subject without the history of how it happened “is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product,” he said. “It is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what we know, and of how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli, to teach about music without Haydn, is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. It is to deny them knowledge of their roots, about which no other social institution is at present concerned.”
Fear Huxley’s future, not Orwell’s. Everyone is worried about Big Brother… but we should really fear ourselves. We live in a society where we can spend hours on devices entertaining ourselves. We have access to TV and videos in any location. We can amuse ourselves to death.
To ask is to break the spell. Blind belief and passive consumption can be broken through the simple act of asking questions. “No medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are,” he said. Healthy skepticism is encouraged. Kids are wired to ask questions, but we often squash those tendencies.
How we talk is how we think. “Any significant change in our ways of talking can lead to a change in point of view.” This is why there’s a battle over labels — abortionist or pro-choice or pro-life? Sodomite or homosexual or gay? Patriot or terrorist? The words we use convey meaning and if you can convince others to use your words, perspectives can shift.
Technology is a doubled-edged sword. Technology giveth and taketh away. The printing press allowed us to codify and pass down knowledge reliability but in exchange we gave up our memories. Mobile phones gave us constant communication but now we’re always distracted and never alone. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
What should I read first?
I like your attitude, wanting to dig in like that. You’re a curious person. Respect.
You should start with Amusing Ourselves to Death:
It was published in 1985. The foreword is brilliant. It’s short, here’s an excerpt:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
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. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
It gets even better and it’ll only take you a few hours to read it — a few hours to change your entire life. Seriously, why are you still here and not ordering it?
Okay, then what?
So you read AOtD and loved it. I’m not one to say “I told you so” but if I was this would totally be the place.
Now you’re ready for a few more reads.
- Technopoly. This is easy to get and builds on the concepts in AOtD.
- The Disappearance of Childhood.
- Follow up on some of the books mentioned in AOtD, especially Boorstin and Mumford.
What’s online by him?
The internet didn’t exist for most of Postman’s life (it was called “cyberspace” or the “information superhighway” back in his day), but there are a few things that have made its way to the interwebs:
- The Educationist as Painkiller (1988)
- My Graduation Speech
- Propaganda (ETC Vol. 36)
- Language Education in a Knowledge Context (ETC Vol. 37)
- Social Science as Theology (ETC Vol. 41)
- Science and the Story That We Need (First Things, 1997)
- Profile of Philo Farnsworth (Time Magazine, 1999)
- Technopoly with Brian Lamb in C-SPAN Booknotes (July 10, 1992 transcript)
- Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death? Part 1 / Part 2 with Richard D. Heffner on Open Mind
- Neil Postman on Cyberspace with Charlene Hunter Gault on PBS (1995)
- Lecture to Apple employees in LA (1993)
- Lecture: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1997)
- Neil Postman’s Conscientious Objections with Richard D. Heffner on Open Mind
- Stirring Up Trouble About Technology, Language, and Education with Eugene Rubin in Aurora (Feb 2002)
- CBC Interview (alt)
Factoids about Postman
He hated answering machines. He thought they were rude.
He had a thing against cruise control. He once asked a salesperson, “What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?” The salesperson responded, “It’s for people who have trouble keeping their foot on the gas petal.” Postman replied that he had never had that problem before.
He also had a thing against power windows. Same reason as cruise control.
What is an appendix for? Who knows. And yet, here it is.
(Actually it’s probably for replenishing gut bacteria. But that’s a different kind of appendix.)
All the Postman books
You can see a selected bibliography on Wikipedia. I’d sure pay a dollar to know what Neil would’ve thought about Wikipedia — the thing that shouldn’t work yet works so well it’s replaced encyclopedias.
Who made this?
Oh hai, I’m Josh Sowin. I created this site back in 2005 because of the impact Postman had on me. These days I’m the CEO of Brainjolt, a viral content company that reaches half of America. We entertain people by telling engaging stories for social media. Sure, pass me a slice of that irony pie.
But seriously, please enjoy comfort content in reasonable quantities.
Life is short. Do things that matter.