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Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 - October 5, 2003) was a American professor, media theorist, and cultural critic who is best known by the general public for his 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For more than forty years, he was associated with New York University. Postman was an old-fashioned humanist, who believed that "there is a limit to the promise of new technology, and that it cannot be a substitute for human values." [1]

Education and careerEdit

Postman was born and spent most of his life in New York City. In 1953, he graduated from State University of New York at Fredonia. He received a master's degree in 1955 and a doctorate in education in 1958, both from the Teachers College, Columbia University, and started teaching at New York University (NYU) in 1959.

In 1971, he founded a program in media ecology at the Steinhardt School of Education of NYU. In 1993 he was appointed a University Professor, the only one in the School of Education, and was chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication until 2002. Among his students are authors Jib Fowles, Dennis Smith, and Paul Levinson.

WorksEdit

Postman wrote 18 books and more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles for such periodicals as The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Time Magazine, The Saturday Review, The Harvard Education Review, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Stern, and Le Monde. He was the editor of the quarterly journal ETC.; A review of General Semantics (founded by S.I. Hayakawa in 1943) from 1976 to 1986. He was also on the editorial board of The Nation.

Amusing Ourselves to DeathEdit

Postman's best known book is Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, a historical narrative which deplores the decline of the communication medium as television images have replaced the written word. Postman argues that television confounds serious issues with entertainment, demeaning and undermining political discourse by making it less about ideas and more about image. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only passive information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning.

He draws on the ideas of media theorist Marshall McLuhan to argue that different media are appropriate for different kinds of knowledge, and describes how oral, literate, and televisual cultures value and transfer information in different ways. He states that 19th century America was the pinnacle of rational argument, an Age of Reason, in which the dominant communication medium was the printed word. During this period, complicated arguments could be transmitted without oversimplification. Amusing Ourselves to Death was translated into eight languages and sold 200,000 copies worldwide.

TechnopolyEdit

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993) is Postman's account of the negative impact of techonology on our culture. Postman argues that a “Technopoly” is a condition of culture in which human judgment and subjective thought fall inferior to the advancement of technology and its mandate for efficiency and accuracy. A Technopoly’s survival is contingent upon humans behaving like machines, relying on statistical data and technological findings, rather than on our own moral judgments to make decisions.

Postman contends that the United States is the only culture to have developed into a Technopoly, in that it has blindly allowed technology to infiltrate its culture, while using bureaucracy, expertise and technical innovation to control the flow of information. Technology assuming this control over the flow of information has in turn resulted, Postman argues, in the dissemination of “context-free information,” or information that “appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose” (Postman, 1993, p. 70).

The rise of Technopoly has created a society which negates the importance of traditional values, replacing it with one that presses for efficiency of production and the advancement of our economic systems. Postman views the rise of Technopoly as dangerous. He provides examples throughout the book to illustrate the negative effects of an emerging Technopoly and ultimately concludes with some suggestions to combat the problems of living in a developing Technopoly.

QuotationsEdit

  • I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.[2]
  • 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."

"Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.[3]

  • A definition is the start of an argument, not the end of one. Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk

Selected bibliographyEdit

  • Television and the Teaching of English (1961)
  • Linguistics: a revolution in teaching with Charles Weingartner (Dell Publishing, 1966).
This book introduces linguistics with an orientation toward language teachers.
  • Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) with Charles Weingartner.
  • The soft revolution : a student handbook for turning schools around with Charles Weingartner (Delacorte Press, 1971).
  • The School Book: for people who want to know what all the hollering is about with Charles Weingartner (Delacorte Press, 1973).
this was a survey of then-current controversies in public education. Postman and Weingartner pointed out an issue that Christina Hoff Sommers also treated at length in her 2001 book The War Against Boys -- that since the behavior expected of children in school is generally to be quiet and docile, boys might have a harder time than girls in schools because this docility contradicts the social role expected of boys outside school.
  • Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk: how we defeat ourselves by the way we talk and what to do about it (1976).
This book essentially treats General Semantics from Postman's viewpoint; it is currently out of print.
  • Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).
  • The Disappearance of Childhood (1982).
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).
This book inspired Roger Waters' album "Amused to Death".)
  • Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education (1988).
  • How to Watch TV News, with Steve Powers(1992) .
  • Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)
  • The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995)
  • Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999)
  • Where Do We Go From Here: The Quest for Narratives in a Technological Society. The 2000 Laing Lectures sponsored by Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
Audio recordings of the three lectures delivered by Postman (including formal responses from Regent College faculty and questions from the audience) are available from the College's bookstore.[4]

NotesEdit

  1. PBS Interview, 1996
  2. 1996 PBS interview
  3. "Informing Ourselves to Death" (1990)
  4. Regent College bookstore

ReferencesEdit

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