Neil Postman’s book infamous critique of the society obsessed with efficiency and technical bureaucracy through the use of ever greater amounts of technology seems more and more relevant 25 years later than it may have even seemed when first released in the early 1990s. I read portions of Postman’s books in college, but never all the way through. After twenty five years, I thought it wise to read him after he was quoted in other books I have been reading lately.
Once a week or so, a newsletter appears in my inbox labeled Machine Learnings about the latest and loudest in the newest trends in artificial intelligence. I can all imagine the shudders I would see from Postman if he were alive to see some of the developments in artificial intelligence. We can also only further imagine the critiques he might have of the internet, social connectedness through online networks, and “always on” culture of American business. With his critique of experts in many fields of social science and business management throughout the book, one can only wonder how he would lambast the newest experts who claim to have the answers for how to make it in our Facebook and Twitterized worlds.
Neil Postman’s argument, fleshed out throughout the book, boils down to the idea that modern society has stripped itself of all moral judgments save that of the bureaucratic class who value efficiency and time management. The bureaucrats (and the social scientists who helped to build this class) are heavily critiqued by Postman throughout the work as “the disease for which it [bureaucracy] purported to be the cure” (Kindle Version, Location 1181).
His solution? In its simplest form, Postman calls for to return to a robust study of the “classics” with a focus on knowledge as forming rather than fully formed and a similar focus on historiography (in all subjects). According to Postman, the idea that knowledge is somehow scientific and objective stems from the mistaken belief that fields such as social science can provide scientific truths in the same way as the natural sciences.
Much of the rest of the book is Postman pointing out both the extent to which technopoly affects our lives and the extent to which it exists as a kind of invisible hand guiding every aspect of modern American life without notice. It is in this juxtaposition that Postman starts the book detailing the conundrum of Thamus who sees writing as “nothing but a burden.” In some ways, Postman’s argument falters under a similar logic.
For all Postman’s claims not to be a luddite, the entire books feels like a dismissal of modern technology. He disparages the stethoscope as a technology that gets in the way of patient and doctor communication. He challenges the ultimate value of sociological research and indicts social scientists who Postman claims are trying to pass their work off in the same way as natural science. Postman analogizes his view of their hypocrisy saying “since a housepainter and an artist both use paint, they are engaged in the same enterprise.” He argues that while scientists might use numbers to describe “the structure of nature,” social scientists “use quantification merely to give some precision to their ideas.” His disdain of social science as mainly a tool of the technocracy is overstated and, in my view, a straw man. There is only a small minority of sociologists, anthropologists, or historians who would claim that they do the same work as those in the natural sciences and that Postman tries to conflate the two shows how much he wants to see technocracy in all aspects of society.
Postman’s fallacy is two-fold: First, he is guilty of a type of “golden age” thinking. I think of Owen Wilson’s as the protagonist in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris who travels back in time to what he views as the golden age of American history only to be met by Marion Cotillard’s character who believed the generation of the Belle Époque was the best and greatest golden age. In preparing to do this review, I listened to a few media appearances Postman did in front of this book and others (like Amusing Ourselves to Death). As I listened to this particular interview, I was interested in the portion where he discusses the Lincoln-Douglass Debates:
In this portion, he discusses how presidential candidates in the antebellum era had hours to explain their point of view. He contrasts with the Reagan-Mondale debates where Barbara Walters might give each candidate only a minute to answer questions about difficult policy positions such as tax reform or immigration policy (in fact, in the interview Postman and the interviewer go a bit “meta” discussing the idea of talking heads on TV in general). He seems to relish the years of bygone era where people cared about politics and read books rather than watch movies.
This, to me, feels a bit like those who long for the days of Bush-era politics over the current administration of Donald Trump. Bush now appears not so bad in contrast to our Twitterer-in-chief, but do we really want to go back to an era of torture, botched invasions, and wall street meltdowns? Every era seems better in retrospect, but I, for one, prefer a world of subways and access to state-of-the-art libraries over the romanticized log-cabin life of Lincoln. This is not to say that I think our era is perfect, but rather that simply having longer presidential debates is not a solution to our present crisis (it is, rather, a symptom of something much deeper). The second fallacy that I noticed is related to this first fallacy: a type of “folk theory” of America. Postman spends much of the last two chapters expounding on a variation of the American Exceptionalism line reproduced in modern times in shows Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom where protagonist Jeff Daniels playing anchor Will McAvoy starts the show with this humdinger:
There has been a form of this myth in almost every culture because we want to believe in this mythical, sacred thing that we sometimes call justice, love, or “the good.” Medieval and early modern scholars often speak about the King and his councilors. Many people held the belief at this time that it is not the king messing things up (for this would somehow implicate God and his divine right), but his councilors that are mucking up the policies of the kingdom. With the falling out of favor of monarchy, our modern equivalent to the councilor is “the vested interests.” As Achen and Bartels point out in their book Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government:
In our view, the ideal of popular sovereignty plays much the same role in contemporary democratic ideology that the divine right of kings played in the monarchical era. It is a “quasi-religious commitment,” in Stimson’s terms, a fiction providing legitimacy and stability to political systems whose actual workings are manifestly — and inevitably — rather less than divine. The fiction feels natural within the Enlightenment mind-set of rationality and human perfectibility. . . .
The fiction of popular sovereignty is so much the sturdier — more more useful to our own ambitious schemers and powerful interests who profit from its fallacies — for being notoriously hard to pin down. . . . when majorities go seriously astray, it is not the people that “advised themselves,” but rather the people misadvised by others and misled by misordered counsel.
Postman is simply another version of this folk theory. He believes technopoly to be this evil standing in the way of “the good.” As the recent election attests, people are quick to blame something within “the system” as to why their candidate didn’t win. The Bernie Sanders wing has been blaming “the establishment” as if getting rid of it would fix America. Many democrats blame “those racists” as the cause of Hillary’s loss as if may of those same white, wealthy democrats do not benefit from the same racist policies each day. In the case of Postman, as with many who love the classics, he argues that a fix to our current “problem” is a return to an education “in which there is a strong emphasis on classical forms of artistic expression.”
He betrays what means by this when he says “there is no excuse for schools to sponsor rock concerts when students have not heard the music of Mozart” or when he says “a young man who believes Madonna to have reached the highest pinnacle of musical expression lacks the sensibility to distinguish between the ascent and descent of humanity.” The feeling in the last chapters of the book is of a crotchety, white, privileged male who believes that whats best about our society is “Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Keats, Dickens, Whitman, Twain, Melville, or Poe.” To say that such a view of classics is tilted in favor of western eurocentricities is an understatement. Perhaps this can be excused by the age of the book, which otherwise holds many promising critiques about society throughout its pages.
Perhaps what I’m saying is that while I agree with the underlying philosophy of the book and even some Postman’s recommendations in the final chapters, when Postman writes things like:
A second argument, coming from what is called a “leftist” perspective, is even more discouraging. In a sense, it offers a definition of what is meant by elitism. It asserts that the “story of Western Civilization” is a partial, biased, and even oppressive one. It is not the story of blacks, American Indians, Hispanics, women, homosexuals — of any people who are not white heterosexual males of Judeo-Christian heritage. This claim denies that there is or can be a national culture, a narrative of organizing power and inspiring symbols which all citizens can identify with and draw sustenance from. If this is true, it means nothing less than that our national symbols have been drained of their power to unite, and that education must become a tribal affair . . . ” (Kindle Version, Loc 2516).
Again, I think part of the reason this sounds so jarring in 2017 is the age of the book, but I would say that the “if this is a true” is, in my view, disingenuous to a truth that would have been just as true in 1993 just as 2017. There are people who live in America for whom the American dream is not only a myth, but a cruel joke that is played out in front of them every day. There are told to work hard to see the fruit of their labor only to find the fruits of their labor going to auto executives or bankers. There are those who are told the color of the skin does not matter in this “post-racial world who are denied an interview because their name looks too “ethnic” or are denied a look in certain neighborhoods because the realtor feels they’d be more comfortable in the “working-class” neighborhood.
As for “national symbols” vs. “a tribal affair,” I would argue that America has always been an amalgam of national symbols vs. regional powers: south vs. north, coastal vs. heartland, blacks vs. whites, men vs. women, states vs. federal, and on and on we could go. For every American flag you might see in Georgia, there is an equal chance you will run up against a rebel flag. For every t-shirt you see with an American flag in New York City, you are equally like to see those wearing their Jamaican colors or the Dominican flag in a Dominican pride parade. In San Francisco you will not see an American flag in the Castro District without a corresponding rainbow flag. In our Episcopal churches, the Episcopal flag flies at the same height as the flag of America.
We are not a national people and that is part of what makes America so, for lack of a better word, American. We are not a nation of Swedes or Germans, but a nation of Americans (whose ethnic origins are vast and diverse). We love the country and we look for kind of grand unifying principles like Postman tries to articulate in his book, but we also have a thousand particularities in a Seurat-like portrait that make up America without which there would be no America.
While I want to reiterate that Postman’s thoughts throughout the book can do much to help us think more philosophically, I want to caution too hard against seeing any medium as “better” or more “rational” than another. While Thamus viewed writing as an evil to be avoided at all costs, Postman seems to fall victim to the same mode of thinking when he sees the technocracy as “nothing but a burden.” There are many goods that might come from a technocratic state, but, just as all others forms of knowledge, we must be vigilant and resist technopoly as an all-encompassing blob that might blot out human kindness and philosophical thought.