Neil Postman, Delivering on Technology

My apologies for the absence. The last few weeks of the semester have been particularly brutal; it all ends soon, though, and within a week, I’ll be back in Indiana, for a good month!

Some time ago, the wonderful Brian Kaller suggested to me that I might enjoy the writings of Neil Postman. I’ve yet to invest in any of Postman’s works (Really, my reading list is dreadfully long already.), but I’ve read briefly about him. For whatever reason, I felt compelled, whilst e-mailing professors to request letters of recommendation (Ph.D. programs, here I come?) and watching Love Actually in the middle of the night, to look up the entry on Postman on Wikipedia and found my way to his 1990 speech, given on my parents’ tenth wedding anniversary, “Informing Ourselves to Death”. The talk includes this absolute gem:

After all, 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. [My emphasis – NPO]

As much as I’ve complained about our collective dependence on electronic technology, whereof I’m quite guilty, and made a few efforts to write handwritten letters, rather than typed missives, to the violent upheaval that something that we take for granted as much as printing — I’ve previously lamented the risk that Kindle and similar products present to books! — I have remained woefully oblivious. Certainly, the now-simple innovation of printing has provided tremendous benefits to the world — even in exchange for the serious losses mourned by Postman —, and what we’ve lost certainly ain’t coming back if we just start writing more handwritten letters. However, this rather unexpected, but poignant, criticism ought to serve to remind us of the delicate balances we risk upsetting with the embrace of every new technology. It is, indeed, a Faustian bargain.

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2 Responses

  1. Seems to be some coincidence afoot: I found your blog via searching for cross references of Postman and of Wendell Berry, two of my favorite authors. Then, reading this post and knowing the date Postman gave that speech, I realized that your parents and my parents were apparently married on the exact same day. Oct 11 1980? I should also mention that I’m a (former) midwesterner from a small hick-ish town.

    I’m a big fan of Postman by the way. I first found him back in college, when I read “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, concerning the societal switch from the printed word to the television era. His understanding and warnings about technology are incredibly insightful in my opinion.

  2. Well, welcome! I’m glad that you found this blog, which I hope to revive soon, after a too-long absence.

    Yes, indeed, our parents share a wedding date! Peculiar coincidences afoot, for sure.

    I need, I recognize, to read Postman. I need to read a lot of authors. But my pile of books, and by to-buy list, increase much more quickly than does the pile of books I’ve read.

    Cheers.

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