Postman’s analysis of technology is prophetic and profound. He warned of the trivializing of our media, defined by “broken time and broken attention,” in which “facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.” He warned of “a neighborhood of strangers and pointless quantity.” That’s a good summary of the digital age. Yet does Postman offer any solutions to this seemingly uncontrollable technological juggernaut?
Thirty-five years ago, New York University professor of communications Neil Postman predicted the political and social implosion we have witnessed in 2020. We must learn to dominate digital media technology, lest it dominate us. Otherwise, we may very well amuse ourselves, and our polis, to death.
Few Americans, one imagines, walked away from the first presidential debate this year feeling optimistic about national politics. “Chaotic,” “vicious,” and “ugly“ were some of the words used to describe the sharp exchanges between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump constantly derided Biden’s 47-year political record, and told him he lacked the “blood” to govern. Biden, in turn, called the celebrity president a “clown.” The whole thing appeared a bit like a reality TV show gone off the rails; this is perhaps appropriate, given that Trump was himself the host of a long-running reality TV competition.
Thirty-five years ago, New York University professor of communication Neil Postman predicted the political and social implosion we have witnessed in 2020. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman criticized television as a medium of information that, regardless of its content, caused Americans to understand all of public discourse through the lens of entertainment. Postman called television a propagator of “irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” That seems an apt description of the first presidential debate, as well as of broader trends we have witnessed this year. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that our digital age, in innumerable ways, aggravates our social and political distemper.
Postman the Prophet
The NYU professor was surely prophetic. “Our own tribe is undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics,” he cautioned. “We face the rapid dissolution of the assumptions of an education organized around the slow-moving printed word, and the equally rapid emergence of a new education based on the speed-of-light electronic message.” What Postman perceived in television has been dramatically intensified by smartphones and social media. A videotaped confrontation between a black, male birdwatcher and a white, female dog owner in New York City’s Central Park in May was posted to Twitter and received 40 million views. The woman lost her job less than twenty-four hours later.
Postman also recognized that technology was changing our mental processes and social habits. “Television has by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youth gained the power to control their education.” Certainly this is truer now when our youth—many of whom are learning virtually (perhaps an oxymoron?)—are educated by the vast, untamed wilderness of the Internet and social media.
Yet all citizens are undergoing this same transformation. Our digital devices undermine social interactions by isolating us, as demonstrated by the remarkable artistic work of Eric Pickersgill. Pickersgill photographs deviceless people pretending to have mobile devices in their hands. He says: “This phantom limb is used as a way of signaling busyness and unapproachability to strangers, while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.”
Moreover, Postman worried about who most benefited from this technological revolution. “Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations, but have solved very little of importance to most people, and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved,” he cautioned. Today corporations like Google and Amazon collect data on Internet users based on their browsing history, the things they purchase, and the apps they use. When I get into my car on Sunday mornings, my iPhone, without my asking, reminds me of how to get to my church. As for new problems, we have increased addictions (technological and pornographic); increased loneliness, anxiety, and distraction; and inhibited social and intellectual maturation.