Posts Tagged ‘Neil Postman’

Nicholas Carr has a pair of thoughtful new posts at his blog Rough Type (see blogroll) under the tag “infinite media.” The second of the two is about context collapse, restoration, and content collapse. I won’t review that particular post; I’m merely pointing to it for you to read. Carr is a journalist and media theorist whose work is especially interesting to me as a partial antidote to what I’ve been calling our epistemological crisis. In short, he offers primers on how to think about stuff, that stuff being the primary medium through which most people now gather information: via screens.

Relatedly, the other media theorist to whom I pay attention is Alan Jacobs, who has a recent book (which I read but didn’t review or blog about) called more simply How to Think. It’s about recognizing and avoiding cognitive biases on the way to more disciplined, clear thinking. I mention these two fellows together because I’ve been reading their blogs and books for over a decade now and have been curious to observe how their public interactions have changed over time. They have each embraced and abandoned various new media (particularly social media) and adopted more stringent media ecology. Carr posts ocassionally now and has closed comments at his blog (a shame, since his commentariat was valuable, quite unlike the troll mob at most sites). Jacobs is even more aggressive, starting and abandoning one blog after another (was active at multiple URLs, one formerly on my blogroll) and deleting his Twitter account entirely. Whatever goings-on occur at Facebook I can’t say; I never go there. These aren’t criticisms. We all evolve our associations and activities. But these two are unusual, perhaps, in that they evaluate and recommend with varying vehemence how to interact with electronic media tools.

The wide-open Web available to Americans (but restricted in some countries) used to be valorized as a wholly democratic, organic, grass-roots, decentralized force for good where information yearned to breathe free. Though pioneered by academic institutions, it wasn’t long before the porn industry became the first to monetize it effectively (cuz duh! that’s there the money was — at least initially) and then the whole thing was eventually overwhelmed by others with unique agendas and mechanisms, including commerce, surveillance, and propaganda. The surfeit of information demanded curation, and social media with algorithmic feeds became the default for folks either too lazy or just untrained (or uninterested) in how to think for themselves. Along the way, since a surprisingly large portion of human activity diverted to online media, that activity turned into a resource mined, harvested, and in turn monetized, much like the voting public has become a resource tracked, polled, channeled, activated, disenfranchized, corrupted, and analyzed to death.

An earlier media theorist I read with enthusiasm, Neil Postman, recommended that curricula include the study of semantics as applied to media. (Use of a word like semantics sends nonacademics running for the hills, but the recommendation is basically about thinking critically, even skeptically, regarding information, its sources, and its means of distribution.) The rise of handheld omnimedia postdates Postman, so I can only surmise that the bewildering array of information we confront absorb every day, which I liken to drinking from a fire hose, only compounds Postman’s concern that students are severely overmatched by media (especially advertising) intent on colonizing and controlling their minds. Thus, today’s information environment is a far cry from the stately slowness of earlier eras when teaching and learning (to say nothing of entertainment) were conducted primarily through reading, lecture, and discussion.

A comment came in on this blog chiding me for still blogging after 14 years. I admit hardly anyone reads anymore; they watch (or listen, as with audio-only podcasts). Preferred forms of media consumption have moved on from printed text, something USA Today recognized decades ago when it designed its print publication and sidewalk distribution boxes to look more like TVs. Nonetheless, the modest reproach reminded me of a cry in the wilderness by Timothy Burke: why he still blogs, though quite infrequently. (There’s a brokeback can’t-quit-you joke in there somewhere I’ll leave unformulated.) So this blog may indeed be past its proper expiration date, yet it remains for me one of the best means for organizing how I think about stuff. Without it, I’m afraid thoughts would be rattling loose inside my head, disorganized, only to be displaced by the next slurp from the fire hose.

I’ve been modestly puzzled of late to observe that, on the one hand, those in the U.S. and Canada who have only just reached the age of majority (a/k/a the threshold of adulthood, which is not strictly the same as “the age of sexual consent, marriageable age, school leaving age, drinking age, driving age, voting age, smoking age, gambling age, etc.” according to the link) are disregarded with respect to some political activism while, on the other hand, they’re admired for other political activism. Seems to be issue specific whether young adults are to be taken seriously. If one is agitating for some aspect of identity politics, or a Social Justice Warrior (SJW), one can be discredited as simply being too young to understand things properly, whereas advocating gun control (e.g., in the wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings in February) is recognized as well within a youthful mandate. Survivors of violence and mayhem seem to be uniquely immune to gun advocates trotting out the meme “now is not the time.”

As it happens, I agree that identity politics is a load of horseshit and tighter gun control (no, not taking away everyone’s guns totally) needs to be tried. But I haven’t arrived at either position because youth are either too youthful or wizened enough by horrific experience to understand. Hanging one’s positions on the (dis)qualification of age is a red herring, a meaningless distraction from the issues themselves. Rather, if thoughtful consideration is applied to the day’s issues, which I daresay is not an easy prospect, one should ideally arrive at positions based on any number of criteria, some of which may conflict with others. For instance, I used to be okay (not an enthusiastic supporter, mind you) with the death penalty on a number of grounds but changed my opinion for purely pragmatic reasons. The sheer cost of automatic appeals and other safeguards to ensure that innocents are not wrongly convicted and executed, a cost borne by U.S. taxpayers, is so onerous that to prosecute through to execution looks less like justice and more like maniacal vengeance. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a much saner and less costly project in comparison.

With intractable debates and divisive issues (e.g, abortion, free speech, right to bear arms, immigration, religion, Israel/Palestine conflict, euthanasia, etc.) plaguing public life, one might wonder how do we get everyone on board? Alternatively, how do we at least agree to be civil in spite of our disagreements? I have two replies but no solutions. The first is to recognize that some issues are indeed intractable and insoluble, so graceful acceptance that an opposing opinion or perspective will always be present is needed lest one twist and writhe inconsolably when one’s cherished perspective is not held universally. That’s not necessarily the same as giving up or succumbing to fatalism. Rather, it’s recognition that banging one’s head against certain walls is futile. The second is to recognize that opposing opinions are needed to avoid unhealthy excess in social environments. Put another way, heterodoxy avoids orthodoxy. Many historical practices we now regard as barbaric were abandoned or outlawed precisely because consensus opinion swung from one side to the other. Neil Postman called this a thermostatic response in several of his books. Other barbaric behaviors have been only partially addressed and require further agitation to invalidate fully. Examples are not mentioned, but I could compile a list rather quickly.

Once in a while, a comment sticks with me and requires additional response, typically in the form of a new post. This is one of those comments. I wasn’t glib in my initial reply, but I thought it was inadequate. When looking for something more specific about Neil Postman, I found Janet Sternberg’s presentation called Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life (link to PDF). The 22 recommendations that form Postman’s final lecture given to his students read like aphorisms and the supporting paragraphs are largely comical, but they nonetheless suggest ways of coping with the post-truth world. Postman developed this list before Stephen Colbert had coined the term truthiness. I am listing only the recommendations and withholding additional comment, though there is plenty to reinforce or dispute. See what you think.

  1. Do not go to live in California.
  2. Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers.
  3. Do not read any books by people who think of themselves as “futurists,”
    such as Alvin Toffler.
  4. Do not become a jogger. If you are one, stop immediately.
  5. If you are married, stay married.
  6. If you are a man, get married as soon as possible. If you are a woman,
    you need not be in a hurry.
  7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
  8. Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life.
  9. Remember: It is more likely than not that as you get older you will get
  10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
  12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and
    output are still possible.
  13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
    a dozen.
  14. With exceptions to be noted further ahead, avoid whenever possible
    reading anything written after 1900.
  15. Confine yourself, wherever possible, to music written prior to 1850.
  16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
  17. Truman’s Law: Under no circumstances ever vote for a Republican.
  18. Take religion more seriously than you have.
  19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
  20. Once a year, read a book by authors like George Orwell, E.B. White, or
    Bertrand Russell.
  21. Santha Rama Rau’s Law: Patriotism is a squalid emotion.
  22. Josephson’s Law: New is rotten. has a brief article about Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos marketed by Brainy Baby Co. and Walt Disney Co. Commentary has been all over the blogosphere for the past few days. In short, the article says that children exposed to visual stimulation fare worse than those exposed to storytelling and reading as determined by the size of the children’s vocabularies.

Um, could this be any more obvious? Teach words and kids learn vocabulary. Teach images and kids learn … what … more images? It also seems rather obvious that kids would prefer visual to verbal stimulation, much as they prefer sugary foods to veggies. The ironic thing, funny perhaps if it weren’t so insipid, is that parents who take their cues from corporations selling this junk innocently believe they’re doing their kids a favor when in fact the kids are being stunted — a classic case of unintended consequences.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, recommends that even primary education be suffused with semantic analysis of the information environment. Why? So that we can better understand this:

To oversimplify more than is probably justified, we might say that (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2) because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different media have different political biases; (3) because of the physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4) because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media have different social biases; (5) because of the technical and economic structure, different media have different content biases. [from Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity]

If teachers and parents better understood the various biases of information to which children are exposed, would they ever even consider admitting things such as TV, video games, iPods, and various other electronics into children’s daily lives, much less buying into the fatuous notion that these things are educational tools?