There are very few cultural critics who I would cross the street to see; but when Neil Postman came to Vancouver a couple of years ago I spent much of a week listening to Postman say things which were remarkably obvious - once he had said them.
He drew national attention with "The Disappearance of Childhood" (Delacorte, 1982), in which he asserted that television conflated what should be the separate worlds of children and adults. It did so, he contended, by steeping the minds of children in vast amounts of information once reserved for their elders and subjecting them to all the desires and conflicts of the adult world.
link et seq. new york times
This was, in itself, enough to make Postman a bit of a hero in my books. We now have a term for the effects Postman was warning about: age compression. It is the phenomena which creates the delights of "kinderwhore" dressing for girls and "mook" existence for teenage boys. But Postman was just getting started. His book, Amusing Ourselves to Death
is the most scathing survey of the dumb culture promoted by television I have ever read. At one point I could quote sections from memory. No longer and I don't have a copy out of a box; but one of Postman's central insights is that there are no prerequisites in TV land. Every show begins with the premise that its viewers know nothing at all. Which is the exact opposite of the way that knowledge is patiently accumulated over time.
Dr. Postman was particularly offended by the presentation of television news with all the trappings of entertainment programming, including theme music and "talking hairdos." Only in the printed word, he felt, could complicated truths be rationally conveyed.
The end of political and social discourse was heralded, according to Postman, by sound bites and happy chat in place of actual news. similarly, the need for entertainment meant that the idea of analysis was replaced with "How do you feel?" questions.
Listening to Postman, reading Postman, I heard a voice steeped in a tradition of rigorous, iconoclastic thinking who was baffled and angered by the elevation of idiocy which passed for big media in the United States and, eventually, throughout the world. He was, as many of his generation are, ambivalent about computers and the internet. As he put it in the huge Baptist Church where he was lecturing, the problem of the internet and the PC was that it could not be "uninvented" and whatever its consequences we were stuck with them. It was not so much that he was against the technology; rather he noticed that we had arrived in the computer age without the slightest discussion or debate as to whether we should be there at all. The technology made the decision for us. For Postman, a humanist to his fingertips, the idea of technology ruling man rather than its opposite was suspicious at best, anathema at worst.