January 2000 | Citizen at Large

Neil Postman is No Progressive

by Jay Walljasper

Don’t call Neil Postman a progressive. He may be a consistent and cutting critic of capitalism. He may be on the editorial board of The Nation magazine. He may be the author of the sixties classic, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. And he may have once believed in the tenets of progress. But no more.

Postman now calls himself a conservative, and contends that most others who now use that label — loyal Republicans and corporate boosters — are actually radicals. He explained why in a speech given several years back to a group of business leaders and academics in Vienna. "A capitalist cannot afford the pleasures of conservatism, and of necessity regards tradition as an obstacle to be overcome.... It is fairly easy to document that capitalists have been a force for radical social change since the 18th Century, especially in the United States.... In today’s America...if anyone should raise the question,‘What improves the human spirit?’ Americans are apt to offer a simple formulation: That which is new is better, that which is newest is best.

"The best cure for such a stupid philosophy is conservatism. My version, not President Reagan’s."

Postman, chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University, has spent many years researching the social consequences of television, and he says that’s what made him a skeptic of technological progress.

"Along with everyone else I was delighted with television," he remembers. "But somewhere in the mid-sixties I began to see that there was going to be a downside to the wonders of television. It would change our social habits, and not necessarily for the better. It would affect our perceptions of what we might do with our leisure time. It would have some serious effects on literacy, and most of all it was having a very unhealthy effect on young people."

Postman thinks the left "has been insufficiently attentive to what it means to live in a technological culture," but he saves his strongest denunciations for so-called conservatives, who gladly sacrifice all cultural and social traditions at the altar where technology and profit are married.

"I think the single most important lesson we should have learned in the past twenty years," Postman offers, "is that technological progress is not the same things as human progress. Technology always comes at a price. This is not to say that one should be, in a blanket way, against technological change. But it is time for us to be grownups, to understand if technology gives us something, it will take away something. It is not an unmixed blessing. We have to go into the future with our eyes wide open."

As we enter a new age in information technology that makes the influence of television appear quaint, Postman counsels that technology needs to be made into a political issue. He notes that Americans, speaking through their Congress members, rejected supersonic transport planes (SSTs) in the seventies as unnecessary. The same public debate ought to occur about all new technologies.

Postman notes technological advances are always billed as a way to increase our options, when often just the opposite is true. "New technology is sort of imperialistic. It destroys older technologies," he says, noting that a publisher rejected the typewritten manuscript of his most recent book and insisted that he submit it on a computer disk.

"In imagining a society of the future, I hope people would be a little more sensible about this and allow older forms of human communication to co-exist with newer ways. People would have more consciousness of the effects of technology and there would be room for some of us who like to do it the older way."

The greatest danger Postman sees in the mad rush to adopt every new form of technology that pops up is, "it creates the impression that the most serious problems we have in the world are the result of inadequate technology and insufficient information."

"Look at starvation, for example," he continues. "We already have enough knowledge to feed everyone on the planet. If there is crime rampant on the streets of a big city, that has nothing to do with information. As you go through and look at our most serious problems, you’ll see they have very little to do with information. They are not amenable to technological solutions. But a lot of people think technology is the only way we should go. So there is a real sense that we may be distracted from addressing the real causes of these problems."

Postman sees a number of positive signs that Americans are now shedding their longstanding naivete, blindness, and idealism about the effects of technology. "Twenty years ago no one would have been interested in this kind of discussion, now you can really draw a crowd. There are all kinds of new books on the subject. Parents are really wondering about television. They’re asking questions about computer games and whether they should be paying money to have their kids sit in front of their computers for hours and never go out on the street and talk to anyone. There is an audience out there waiting to be organized to exert pressure in making sure that we think a little more clearly on these matters.

"People have begun to sense that there’s something really not quite right about making all your aspirations related to bigger and better technology."

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