David Cherniack Films: Transcripts - Neil Postman

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05:01:44 End Interview - Neil Postman 1 T

I GUESS THE PLACE TO BEGIN, AND IT'S SUCH A BROAD QUESTION THAT I HOPE WE CAN SPEND A LOT OF TIME TALKING ABOUT IT IS HOW TELEVISION HAS CHANGED US IN THE LAST 25 YEARS. WHERE DO YOU BEGIN IN DISCUSSING THAT?

It's hard to know where to begin. I would say that the main ah change that television has made, at least here in the States, is that it's become the command centre of our culture. Television is quite different from other media such as film or theatre or music. People go to the movies to see the move and then they go home. And they go to the theatre to see the play and then go home or listen to a record to hear the music and that's it. But here in the States we go to television for everything. So that we go there for our politics, for our popular literature, for our religion, for our news, commerce. So that television has become a kind of analogue to what the medieval church was in say the 14th or 15th centuries. For anything to be legitimate it has to come through television. And in that sense we have become a television people. Sometimes when I go to the places and people ask me what ah what Americans are like, I say well what we do is watch television. That's our job here. And indeed you have to watch television in a sense to be an American because in order to make contact with whatever is happening in the culture you have to be familiar with what's on television.

YOU SAID THAT IT VALIDATES EXPERIENCE. I THOUGHT OF A WOMAN I TALKED TO LAST YEAR FROM THE - REMEMBER THE MASSACRE AT THE UNIVERSITY IN MONTREAL WHEN THE MAN WENT IN AND SHOT AND KILLED 14 WOMEN. ONE OF THE WOMEN WHO SURVIVED THAT RAN HOME AND IT WASN'T UNTIL SHE SAW THE NEWS ON TELEVISION THAT SOMEHOW THE EXPERIENCE BECAME REAL FOR HER. AND SHE WAS STUNNED BY THAT. SHE WAS - HAVING GONE THROUGH THAT EXPERIENCE IT TOOK TV TO TELL HER THAT IT WAS REAL, THAT IT HAPPENED.

That's an interesting point because I think increasingly as television presents us with experience in symbolic form, the ah - we find that preferable to what we used to call reality. I mean ah I was at the ball park before the Mets collapsed this year and saw Howard Johnson hit a terrific home run. And ah I wanted to see it again on television. NOw they do have a huge TV screen in Shea Stadium as they do in most ball parks probably because if they didn't have a TV screen, people would feel a sense of loss and disappointment with the reality of it because this actually did happen to me once before the TV screen went up in the ball park. I saw a terrific play and then I wanted to see it again.

IN SLOW MOTION AND -

And then realized that this is reality. Reality doesn't come twice or three times or four. Television can repeat it. So it's not just that. I mean I've noticed that people - most of the people on television are very handsome and the women are beautiful. And they don't smell and they always look wonderful in the morning, that is to say people on television are better in some sense than people in real life. And I wonder if young men and women aren't becoming increasingly disappointed with each other or the reality of each other because so much of their experience, as indeed ours, ah comes in this controlled symbolic form. Not only through television but mass advertising and film and so on.

BECAUSE THERE'S ALSO A LOT OF SHARING THAT GOES ON WITH TELEVISION ISN'T THERE? I MEAN IT HELPS A COMMUNITY FEEL LIKE A COMMUNITY IF YOU'RE ALL SITTING AT THE SAME MOMENT WATCHING THE SAME THING ON TELEVISION. I REMEMBER SOMEBODY SAYING THAT THEY DON'T USE THE VCR BECAUSE THERE'S NO POINT, THERE'S NO SHARED SENSE OF WATCHING THE THING AT THE SAME TIME AS EVERYBODY ELSE DOWN THE STREET.

Well this is a tough one to think about. There's a television ah - whether television creates a sense of community or an ersatz sense of community is a question we have to struggle with. For example laugh tracks on sitcoms, why are they there? Well most people are watching television either alone or with another one or two other people. And it's hard for one to ah laugh alone. I think people can cry alone but it's hard to laugh alone. And so television then has to create a sense of an audience even though you're in an isolated in fact in an isolated position. So I wonder about this, whether or not - some people do say as you suggest in your question that television does enhance the idea of a of a public with shared values as when President Kennedy was shot and then everyone watched the funeral. Everyone watched the funeral.

AND JACK RUBY AND OSWALD.

Yes there is something to that that there are certain shared symbols now that television gives everyone access to. At the same time what - one of the things I worry about is what I call the great symbol drain which is to say that a symbol or an icon is repeatable endlessly but the more that you repeat it the more you can drain it of its meaning and television ah uses symbols up at an extraordinary rate especially advertising. That advertisers need more national symbols, the need to employ them them in order to generate and produce the kind of emotions required to make the commercial effective. And I - and I'm ah I wonder if ah we're not doing this at a considerable cost. This may be the reason why Americans are so ah almost psychopathic about the flag. You know when I meet people from other parts of the world they think Americans are a little - or people in the States are a little crazy about the flag. I mean if someone were to burn the flag it's always a - almost a crisis in America. And I think it may be because this is almost the last symbol we have which still retains some sense of meaning and reference in our response to it. Everything else is gone. I mean I don't know if you know there's a Heber National commercial which uses God to sell frankfurters. And I imagine that some day soon we will see a commercial that will go like this. That will be - we'll see Jesus in the desert and ah he will be holding a bottle of Gallo wine and he'll hold it up and say, when I turned water into wine it came - this is what I had in mind. Now that's actually conceivable to me here in the States because we're running out of symbols. So that on the one hand while television does create community, in quotes, through ah projecting into our consciousness national symbols, on the other hand we use them up - TV uses them up at an extraordinary rate.

WHY DO YOU THINK IT'S A MISTAKE FOR TELEVISION TO TRY TO BE SERIOUS?

Well ah because by serious here I mean that ah when we talk about ideas ah we have to realize that ideas are essentially words. I was asked before about whether or not I approved or enjoyed the Bronowski Ascent of Man Series. Here's an interesting point about the Bronowski series. If you read the book, The Ascent of Man, which actually was the television script printed, you realized the Bronowski actually has a theory of social change. And almost anyone who read the book could be asked a question about whether or not they think they agree with Bronowski's theory of social change. If you would ask this question of people who only saw Ascent of Man on television, they would say what theory? The theory disappeared on television even though Bronowski actually uses the words that would appear in the book. Why does the theory disappear? Because the program, being good television, is filled with exotic, interesting, exciting images. The images overwhelm the words. And therefore this is the strength of television. Now when television shows what's happening in Tianamnen Square, that's serious. And can give us an image, I think of that young Chinese student in front of the tank. I mean that is so powerful as to be almost overwhelming and that is television as its best. And that is serious. But when ah but for the most part pictures are representations of experience, not commentary about experience. For commentary about experience we have language and television - it's not television's fault - this is what television is. It shows pictures and shows moving pictures and that's what it does best so that it amplifies the importance of that symbolic form and tends to de-emphasize the role of language. So it's ah I mean ah you should know better than I that most TV directors are very uneasy when they have talking heads like on this program. I don't know who would watch this program now as I'm speaking unless there's nothing else on. But I probably wouldn't watch it. Even if you had a lot smarter person than I am.

BUT WHAT IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF THE IMAGE TAKING OVER FROM THE WORD? WHAT'S THE DANGER IN IMAGES BEING MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORDS?

Well I think it makes people dumber. I mean to put it in a gross sort of way. That ah de Toqueville, when he wrote his famous book, Democracy in America, said that the politics of America is the politics of the printed word, it was a pretty serious politics. I mean people read books, they read newspapers, magazines, broadsides, pamphlets. Ah they were always dealing with ideas, and alternative possibilties for living a life. When you get an image culture, let's say in relation to politics, then you get the kind of thing that we have in the States that passes for a debate on television so that in the last campaign you have Bush and Dukakis in front of a television camera and ah one of the reporters says, tell me Vice President Bush, what do you think is the reason for the problems in the Middle East and what solutions can you offer, you have two minutes in which to answer after which Governor Dukakis will have one minute for rebuttal. Well if we were a sane people Bush should turn to the reporter at that point and say how dare you ask this question in that form giving me two minutes to reply and Governor Dukakis a minute to rebutt. What kind of men do you think we are? Or he might have said, what kind of audience do you think this is that they would imagine that this question could be addressed seriously in two minutes. But of course, Bush doesn't say that, Dukakis wouldn't either because -

THE AUDIENCE WOULDN'T STAND FOR IT.

The audience - it's assumed wouldn't stand for it. Everyone seems to know somehow that the discourse here is not to be taken seriously. It's not to be attended to. What we are paying attention to is something else - how they look, does the image convey a sense of resolution and decisiveness and authority. So we all know this. And when we run our political commercials, George Bush or Roger Ayles, whoever you want to say it, does a commercial where Willy Horton's face is put on the commercial. Pretty fierce looking guy and black which makes him look for many Americans, even fiercer. And there really has to be no explanation, not even of what a furlough program is. Or how many states have a furlough program. The image does it. So in one area, say politics, the changeover from a print culture to an image culture I think is very dangerous because it redefines politics - (cough) - excuse me, into a matter of aesthetics rather than a logic or analysis or ah sociology or anything of that sort which politics traditionally has been. And with religion we see the same thing, that religion on television is a form of show business. If you look at the very successful preachers on television, they hve no - there's no history, there's no theology, there's no dogma, no tradition. They're successful because the preachers are or at least were before they were uncovered as frauds, ah charismatic and on television that's wonderful. But if a -

(background talk)

Start 06:19:46 Interview - Neil Postman 2 T

The point of view I'm taking, let's say in contrast to Camille's views, could be characterized by saying that I'm an old person defending older forms of consciousness. That, I wouldn't deny that. I mean it's entirely conceivable that people being born today would have no notion of what I'm talking about when I talk about the advantages of black scribbles on white paper. So I'm ah not reluctant to concede that ah ah my own orientation, who I am and what I am, really comes from print. And I think McLuhan called people like me POBs, Print Oriented Bastards. But a person after all does have a right to defend his or her own culture. And besides, it's valuable to the younger people in the sense that it - this point of view serves as a kind of ahh brake - b-r-a-k-e, as a balance or ballast, if you will, to the excesses that are committed by new - new media.

LET ME JUST GO BACK FOR A SECOND AND PICK UP WHERE YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT WHAT TELEVISION HAS DONE TO RELIGION.

Yes well ah on ah - religion on television is blatantly a form of show business so that you find that the preachers gain their force through the charisma and power of their personalities. There's no time or room or need for theology, for dogma, for tradition, even for ritual. It's just the popularity of a personality. So that religion, like politics, is also redefined in this sense by television.

BUT IS THAT NECESSARILY BAD, TO REDEFINE RELIGION OR POLITICS? THE PERSON MAY STILL BE - IN THE AUDIENCE MAY STILL BE GETTING AS MUCH COMFORT AND FRIENDSHIP AND SOLACE FROM A PREACHER ON TV -

Here's my answer to that. Probably someone has brought this up before but in the fifth century, B.C. when Athens was undergoing a transformation from an oral culture to a writing culture, that is the Greeks were beginning to commit to - commit their history and philosophy and ah dramatic literature to texts, there was an argument that went on about what would be the advantages of becoming a writing culture and the disadvantages. Now Socrates was the great spokesman for the oral tradition. And he says in the Phaedrus, which we wouldn't know about if Plato hadn't written it, that he's opposed to writing first of all because writing would cause people to lose their memories. Second because writing would change the nature of education, it would destroy the dialectic. Writing forces the student to follow an argument rather than to participate in it. Also writing would destroy the traditional sense of privacy because once you write something down you never know whose eyes would fall upon it. So Socrates spoke against writing. What Socrates didn't see but perhaps Plato did were the advantages that a writing culture would bring. And there sere tremendous advantages. At the same time there were tremenouds disadvantage. Now my - there's a long winded answer to your question that there could be tremendous advantages to a television image culture as that cultur redefines what we mean by education, politics, news, religion etc. Some of these advantages even an old grouch like me can perceive at this point. But I also see some disadvantages. And in the books I write and in the talks I give, I like to emphasize the disadvantages for this reason. Most people, at least in the States, probably in Canada as well, when they think of a new technology, like to talk about what the technology can do. Almost no one ever talks about what the new technology will undo. And the question of what a new technology will undo is at least as important as what the new technology will do. So sure, the answer to your question is there may be tremendous gains in our humanity that the computer, for instance, as well as television will bring. But there are enough people talking about that. Camilla Paglia can talk from now til doomsday on that subject. But it's always important I think to have someone to remind everyone that new technologies giveth and taketh away. And so we need to concentrate rather more than we have done on what is being lost. Now when you say, well we're going to have a new politics, a television politics, where political campaigns will be done in 30 second commercials and debates will be done with two minute answers. Well maybe there are advantages in that. Ronald Reagan was referred to as the great communicator. Now this is a man who rarely talked accurately and never precisely. And yet he was called the great communicator. Yet in a sense, Peter, the name was probably rightly applied because although he was not articulate in language, he was magic on television. And when you asked people, why do you vote for this man they would say because I trust him or I see somehow in this image on television that he understands my pain. Now my reply to that was if you look at his policies it's obvious he doesn't understand your pain. But that may be old style. That's print politics talking.

LET ME GO BACK TO THAT PERSON WATCHING THE PREACHER ON SUNDAY MORNING ON TELEVISION. ARE YOU SAYING THAT THE QUALITY OF FAITH THAT THAT PERSON HAS IS DIFFERENT FROM THE PERSON WHO'S IN THE CHURCH.

I'm saying even more than that. I said some place before and would say it again here that religion on television comes very close to blasphemy because one begins to love the preacher more than God. And we had a - even the Catholics who have been reluctant to use television had a - ah a cardinal ah ah - no a bishop, Bishop Fulton Sheen who had a television show. Now this goes back about 30 years. A wonderful looking man, very dramatic and he enhanced the drama of his physical appearance by wearing a very striking cape. He had a program on that was almost as popular as Milton Berle's program at the time. Eventually he was taken off television by the church and sent to some, I think to Rochester, New York, which was then a sort of back water. I think the church was somewhat frightened that people had begun to love Bishop Sheen more than they loved Jesus, and that would be a form of blasphemy. And I think we see that in even today where people begin to love the television preachers more than the conception of God that is supposed to underly such programs.

CAN THAT HAPPEN AS WELL WITH NEWS, FOR EXAMPLE. YOU BEGIN TO IDENTIFY MORE WITH THE ANCHOR THAN WITH EVENTS IN THE WORLD?

Not only does it happen with news but I've been puzzled for years over this notion of credi-- the credibility of a newscaster. I'm not quite sure what that means. For instance, when you go to see a play and if you were to say to me that a certain actor was not credible in his role, I assume that means that you weren't convinced that this actor was the character he was supposed to play. Now when we say that a newscaster is not credible what do we mean? Do we mean that people do not believe that he was a newscas--, that he's a newscaster or do they mean that they think - they don't believe that what he's saying is true. The word credible tells us a lot. It tells us that these newscasters are actor. And actually we're simply asking, I think, do we believe that this person called Walter Cronkite or - well he's retired now but Dan Rather -

HE'S STILL PROBABLY THE MOST TRUSTED ANCHOR IN THE UNITED STATES.

Okay well then let's take Cronkite. Do we believe that this is what a newscaster should look like and sound like? Well that - that's almost a new definition of a journalist. So that I think that can be - that can be awfully dangerous too because ah you can have someone who is actually an ignoramus but who is credible as a newscaster. And then that raises all sorts of problems I think for for the area of public information.

BUT HE'S JUST THE MESSENGER.

Well I suppose if you ask people if ah ah Dan Rather or Tom Bro-- if they believe that say Tom Brokaw writes his own material, I would guess most people think he does. Most people think of him as the, almost the origin of the news because of course he's the one they see. But ah I do think this whole idea of the show business dimension of television by which I mean that television by its nature tends to turn all discourse into forms of show business, I think that's important. I mean am I the only one in North America who thinks it's strange that new shows should begin with music and end with music? I mean what is the music all about? Is this the case in Canada too? Why is this there? I'm accustomed -

TO GET YOUR ATTENTION. TO TELL YOU THE NEWS IS COMING.

Well to tell me the news is coming but also to say that - to suggest perhaps that this is a form of theatre. This is going to be the leit motif. After all, there are promos before the news comes on, at least in the States. Two men killed on Times Square, two men at 11:00, a lot of music. Well this is - is this news exactly or is this news as material for some kind of structured theatrical production.

I DON'T WANT TO SPEND ALL THE TIME WE HAVE WITH YOU ON TELEVISION BUT I DO HAVE JUST ONE OTHER QUESTION BECAUSE IF WE LOOK BACK OVER 25 YEARS, TELEVISION HAS CHANGED INCREDIBLY. AND ONE ASPECT OF IT HAS BEEN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM.

Well what are the - if I just may go back to news and I'll get to investigative journalism in a second. But one of the changes in news over 25 years has interested me a great deal. You look too young to remember this, Peter, but I -

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

- I remember this. Newscasters used to use what I call second - if I can use the grammatical metaphor - a second person form of address. That is John Cameron Swayze would address the audience, give the news to the audience. Now it has changed to what I call third person. One newscaster talks to another newscaster and then the audience listens in on their conversation. Well Peter, what happened over in New Jersey today? Well John, very interesting. By the way, Peter isn't today your birthday? Yes it is. How old are you? Now this goes on partly to create a sense of intimacy but also to remove - distance the audience from it. The way film works, film is always best in the third person. The audience watches people on the screen interact. There are some exceptions to this in some of the Woody Allen movies and for the old timers, the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road pictures and maybe some Marx brothers movies. Every once in a while, the character on the screen would turn to the audience and address the audience directly. But it doesn't really work awfully well in in film. Film's natural mode of discourse or form of address is third person. Television news has changed from second to third making us observers of this interaction which I think makes it more theatrical actually. So that's a point I think worth making. But as for investigative reporting, I don't know that television does much of it, not in the States. Nothing comparable to what you would find in the press.

BUT DO YOU THINK IT'S CAPABLE OF IT? DO YOU THINK IT HAS THE ABILITY TO SUCCEED IN THAT AREA?

Well ah I - I mean if you go back 25 years and look at the kind of news department that CBS would have had - by the way mostly with men - they were mostly men from journalism background. Not Morrow incidently, but most of the others, where news departments were not expected to make money. We have to give the old time people that one. That their idea was they had plenty of money in the entertainment division. The news division was something else. It wasn't expected to make money; it was expected to lose money but that would be no problem. Nowadays of course all of that is different. News is one of the biggest money making divisions in any television network so that nowadays I don't see that there's any reason for - put that in quotes - or possibility for television news departments to spend the kind of money that would be needed to keep reporters off the air for weeks or months to follow through some story. I mean the S&L; scandal would not have been uncovered by a television news department nor Watergate or Irangate or any of those things. The structure of television news I think simply make investigative reporting ah you know, beyond the reach. Now you may be thinking of programs like 20-20 or Sixty Minutes which does do some stuff like this and we're very glad to have them. But even those programs are essentially money makers. I thikn 20-20 has made something like $40 for ABC last year. And I just don't think we can expect in the future that there would be any serious investigative reporting on television.

(background talk)

Start 07:21:13 Interview - Neil Postman 3 T

IF YOU LOOK AHEAD TEN OR FIFTEEN YEARS, WHAT IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF OUR NEWS BEING DELIVERED IN A THEATRICAL WAY?

Well that question can be answered by recalling what effect the theatricality of news has had say here in the States over the past 15 or 20 years. I think what you get is that people who know of many things but not about many things. We've done studies here at our media ecology program at NYU but others have done this in different universities, to find out what people know about different events and situations and peoples throughout the world. And over and over again we find that we - Americans now know of things. They know of Iran but they don't necessarily know where it is. They don't necessarily know what Ayatollah means. They don't know what religion is practised by the Iranians. So that news is transformed, it is redefined, it is a kind of commodity, information as a commodity where you can identify things, you've heard of things. But it may be the effect is simply that Americans will become the most ill-informed people in the world. There's some evidence that that may already be the case.

I'M INTRIGUED BY THE ARGUMENTS YOU PUT FORWARD FOR THE WORD OVER THE IMAGE AND IT OCCURRED TO ME THAT MY NEPHEW WHO JUST GRADUATED FROM UNIVERSITY - HE'S 24 OR 25 - FEELS I THINK THAT THE WORD AS AN IMAGE, THAT THE BOOK IS AN OLD FASHIONED IMAGE TO HIM NOW. THAT EVERYTHING IS ON THE COMPUTER. IS IT POSSIBLE THAT LANGUAGE IS ALSO JUST IMAGES, WORDS ARE JUST IMAGES.

Well if - you see in order to read ah the words, the shapes of the words have to become basically invisible. You couldn't read if as you opened the page you were attracted by the sensuality of the G and how it looked. We have to go right past that to meaning. This is an essential point in talking about the difference between a medium like television and print in that the forms of words for reading have to be of no consequence whereas the form of the images on television is everything. So I think what television does, in the case of your nephew, is by heightening one's attention to shapes, it tends to make reading more difficult for the young. Now at the same time that may mean that it is making the young more sensitive to certain visual arts than people in my generation. So there would be a gain there but also a loss.

THAT'S SOMETING THAT COMES UP ALL THE TIME IN TECHNOPOLY, THE FIRST CHAPTER ANYWAY THAT I'VE READ OF YOUR NEW BOOK. THAT IDEA THAT GIVETH AND TAKETH AWAY, IT'S NOT I THINK THIS OR THAT, IT'S -

Yes I mean the ah this goes back to something I said earlier about understanding what technologies undo as well as what they do. Marshall McLuhan used to say that one of the effects of the printing press was to make us deaf in the sense that language became more a matter of the eye, seeing the words than hearing them. And for someone like myself, there's much truth in that. If you were, Peter, to tell me about a letter you received from David and said you wanted to read it to me, I would most likely say, give it over here, let me look at it because I can process language fairly efficiently through the eye, maybe less well - certainly less well through the ear. So I think McLuhan was right there that the print people are apt to be less sensitive to orality than ah than existed before. And it may be in the future people like your nephew will be very responsive to orality. This is something McLuhan prophesied that we would have, and Walter Arn talks about a secondary orality that the electronic culture promotes. I haven't seen much evidence of that yet but it could be that this will - we will have our hearing, as it were, restored. But at the same time it probably means we're going to be less competent in processing language through the eye. There's plenty of evidence that that's the case already.

NOW A LOT OF TECHNOLOGY WE'RE UNAWARE -

(BACKGROUND TALK)

WE WERE TALKING ABOUT TECHNOPOLY AND HOW NEW TECHNOLOGY IMPACTS ON IT. AND WHAT I'M INTERESTED IN IS THAT IT DOESN'T EVEN - WE'RE UNAWARE OF IT TO LARGE MEASURE HOW OUR LIVES ARE CHANGED BECAUSE OF IT.

Yes I think it - the key idea here Peter that I spend a lot of time trying to convince people about and that's really what my book is about is that imbedded in every technology is an idea. And people think of technologies as machinery, but ah when you invent a mechanical clock you introduce an idea about time that people didn't have before. Lewis Mumford said somewhere that the clock really replaces eternity as a reference point of time. It makes time into a commodity. It breaks it down into hours and minutes and seconds. When you invent eyeglasses you introduce the idea that people do not have to live their whole lives with what God or nature gave to them, that nature is modifiable. So you can improve your eyesight and you can change the shape of your nose. And right now we even change the shape of our genetic structure. All of that is an idea really introduced by a certain technology. So that every kind of technology - you have to sometimes search for the idea. But ah I mean McDonald's is a technology - the fast food industry. But what's the idea? Well I think it's a pretty dangerous idea because traditionally eating always had a spiritual component. I mean breaking bread with someone was a very serious matter. The idea that ah you don't have to have that dimension in eating. You can eat in 30 minutes or 20 minutes - less - 15 minutes, and get it over with, is a new kind of idea. So I think what we have to do is begin to search for the ideas. I mean in computers, for example, this is a very dangerous idea imbedded in it is this idea. That what the world needs is more information because the computer can store information and retrieve it and more of it and in a more accessible way than any other technology was able to do. So people begin to believe that their - the problem that they have to solve is how to get more information faster. That's the idea of the computer. But that's not the problem. I mean if - if America and Russia - if there is a Russia - blow the world up with nuclear weapons, iit won't be because they didn't have enough information. And if children are starving in Ethiopia it's not because we don't have enough information. And even at a personal level, if ah if you're not getting along with your wife or children it's not because you don't have enough information. Yet along comes the computer and it has this sort of metaphysical idea that the important problems of the world can be solved through more information more accessibly retrievable. Well, we have to look at that to see whether or not we want to govern our lives with that idea. Up to now, at least in my country, perhaps less so in yours, we have not asked questions about technology. Americans have loved technology. They've had an absolute passion for technology. And no one has stopped to ask ah what will we lose with this? No one has stopped to ask what are the ideas underlying these machines, some of which may be wonderful ideas and and ah survival enhancing ideas, some of which may be destructive ideas. But no one has been asking this.

AND THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE HOME COMPUTERS OF COURSE CONVINCE YOU THAT YOUR LIFE WILL BE BETTER, THAT YOU'LL HAVE MORE LEISURE TIME, THAT - I THINK YOU SAID AT SOME POINT THAT YOU CAN BALANCE YOUR BOOK AND KEEP RECIPES AND DOCTOR'S APPOINTMENTS AND YOUR LIFE IS GOING TO BE WONDERFUL. WHEN IN FACT ALL THE EXAMPLES YOU USED, IT DRAINED HUMANITY.

Yes but you see it goes back to what we were talking earlier. I won't go back to television but ah a new medium tends to redefine institutions. If television is redefining what we mean by politics, for instance, it may be that the computer is going to redefine what we mean by learning and ah waht we mean by - indeed what we mean by information of what we mean by wisdom. These are pretty heavy questions and we better get busy, I think, trying to dope this out because I call my new book Technopoly meaning that, at least here in the States, we've created or in the process of creating what I call the first technolopoly - a culture which is getting all of its instructions, all of its motivations and aspirations from technology. Now and that has - such a culture has no room for traditional ideas or even ah traditional forms of symbolic expression. So that the technological imperative ah becomes the ruling guideline in our culture.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF THAT - LEAVING NO ROOM FOR SYMBOLIC EXPRESSION. WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

Well in the book I talk about three kinds of cultures. One, a tool using culture and a tool using culture is a culture that invents technologies to serve certain social institutions whether it's religion or myth or politics or whatever. The second kind of culture is what I call a technocracy which existed in the west mostly in the 18th and 19th century where the new demands of technology competed with the older forms of culture. There was a kind of clash between the needs of new technological thought and the older mythologies and political structures and beliefs ah from a tool using culture. And then finally technolopoly which obliterates completely traditional culture. So that when people talk about education now the question is, well what use can we make of computers in education? What use can we make of television, interactive television? How can we use fax machines? This then becomes how you approach the question of education. So then if someone would say, wait a second, what's education for, is it possible that we just don't need computers or television or anything. Let's address the question, what's education for. Well the answer is basically education is teach to you the new technologies. In medical technology, I have wonderful examples - one out of every four births in the States now is done through Caesarean section. Now Caesarean section does save lives - babies and mothers at risk, but also it's a fairly complicated operation, and a woman undergoing Caesarean section statistically has about four times the chance of dying from it than from a normal delivery. Well why are one out of every four births being delivered through Caesarean section? Because we have a technical procedure that can do it. So then it becomes a matter of convenience. A doctor, I interviewed doctors for my book. One doctor said, everyone who has a headache now wants a catscan. And he said, 6 out of every 10 catscans I do are not necessary. I said, well why do you do them? He said, because first of all I have to protect myself against malpractice suits. Second of all, patients expect doctors to use high tech or else they feel the doctor hasn't delivered a proper service.

SO THE LESSON THERE IS THAT IF THE TECHNOLOGY IS THERE WE FEEL WE MUST USE IT.

It takes charge. That's what I mean by the technological imperative. That's what Jacques Eluel means by it and what I mean by technopoly is a culture that is no longer addressing the question, do - what use do we wish to make of this that would preserve the best in our culture and at the same time maximize what the technology could do. You see, if people had this kind of awareness, Peter, here's what would happen. Let's suppose it was 1903 and we really knew back then what we know now about the combustion engine. Then someone could say to us, look, we've invented this automobile. Here are some of the things that the automobile will do for us. There are many good things obviously. Here are some of the bad things. Well it will poison our air; it will make our cities congested; will destroy much of the beauty of a natural landscape; will create the suburbs. Now so here's some good things, here's some bad things. Let's vote on it. Well suppose we had a plebiscite. I know what we'd vote - how the vote would go in the States. We'd say ah let's do it. But even if we said let's do it the next remark would be, could we do - could we have automobiles but at the same time remove or limit some of the negative consequences. Well there are a lot of things we could have thought of in 1903 if we had this sort of insight. We might have done the same thing with television. Said look here are some of the terrific things with television, but here are some of the dangerous things - we may lose our concept of childhood, we may redefine what we mean by politics in these ways. Now what do you want to do? Well Americans would say, let's do it, but is there something we could do to minimize the negative consequences? Well we didn't ask that in 1948-49 and '50 when television was starting. Everyone said let's just do it, because we believe in technology. With computers, now the same damn thing is happening. Everyone wants to talk about all the good things computers will bring and there will be some. Anyone who wants to talk about some of the things computers will undo is thought to be a grouch or worse, is called a Luddite, someone who wants to bust up - well I mean who wants to bust up - we don't want to bust up a catscan machine or bust up computers. All one wants to say is let's decide actually what are the constraints of this, how should -

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Start 07:37:49 Interview - Neil Postman 4 T

People who are apt to ah - are persistent in talking about the limitations of new technologies and how they are apt to control our lives rather than our controlling them will often be called grouches or - if one really wants to be mean they're called Luddites. Actually the Luddites had a pretty good idea. I know that the Luddites are now thought of as people who were technological naive and who wanted to turn the clock back - but by the way I think sometimes it's good to turn the clock back if the clock is wrong. What these people were trying to do was to preserve some of the rights and privileges that the working class had before the age of machinery took hold and they could have made some very positive suggestions on how we could control machinery. But I think we all have to become something like that - people who are distanced to some extent from our technology. See, here's an interesting thing, what I would like to see our education to do for our young is to make all technology appear strange - strange. I mean when is the last time anyone said to you you know, Peter you should come to my house. I have this fantastic machine. You won't believe this. All I have to do is turn on this button and you can see someone in San Francisco talking just as he - when is the last time? - no, we don't say that any more. Although, by the way, when we got a television set in my house in 1948 that's how we all were. I invited my friends in just to watch test patterns beause we were so amazed at this. No one is amazed any more at television. We take it for granted; it's not strange. Computers now are still a little strange but ten years from now they won't be strange, they'll be taken for granted. Once a technology is no longer strange then to use a term, Roland Bauths uses, it becomes mythic. We no longer think of it as a human creation but as something from nature. Just as I ask my students sometimes, can they tell me within 500 years when the alphabet was invented, the question strikes them as wierd. It's as if I'm asking them when stars were invented or when the clouds were invented. The alphabet they don't think was invented. It just is. It's part of nature. That's how we think of television. And we're getting to think of computers that way too. The problem with that is that once you think of a technology as mythic, as part of nature, then you - you're no longer interested in controlling it or even asking the question.

YOU FEEL POWERLESS.

I mean that's right, how can you control the clouds? I mean it's like saying let's do something to stop the clouds from forming tomorrow. So that's when technology is at its greatest danger point, when people - it's no longer strange to people. They feel they have no control over it and therefore they have to modify all of their social institutions - family, religion, politics, education to accommodate the technology. I mean I - to get just for a second back to television news, I - ah I think it would be wonderful to see a newscaster one day who was describing an earthquake in Chile where 5,000 people have been buried alive, for the guy to stop talking after he says this and start to cry. Then it would certainly look strange to us - this man is crying. What is happening? Because he has realized what he has just said - that 5,000 people have been buried alive. He can't go on. Well but he'd probably be fired or admonished by his producer. You know, people like David would say, be a professional. You told about the earthquake; now tell about the plane crash. That's your job. Well he - the producer wants the person to accommodate himself or herself to the needs of the technology. To have a man actually cry cause he's talking about 5,000 people dead is just not acceptable. So a technopoly is a culture in which the new technologies become mythic. They are perceived as part of nature; they are no longer under our authority and our whole job as human beings and as a society is to adjust whoever we are and what we are to fit the needs of the technology. I mean if you have computers that can make standardized tests easy to give and to grade and to evaluate, then everyone will give standardized tests. I mean the standardized test itself, I just should note in passing, is a technology.

THE WHOLE IDEA OF GRADING IS -

Yes. And most people - see there's an interesting thing. Most people don't even - most teachers think of grading as sort of from nature like some people are As or do A papers and some people B papers and so on. The first known example of grading was at Cambridge University in 1794. And the idea of assigning a number to a person's idea, you know, that Peter's idea on the growth of capitalism is an A plus and David's is a B minus, such an idea would have seemed to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson as an insane idea. Well, now we accept it. We just say it's part of nature, that's it. And so now not only can we give a grade to your - the quality of your ideas but we have tessts that will grade you on your degree of sanity on, by the way, your tolerance to pain. Do you know about Dolomitus. Here's what a dolomita is. They put a sort of iron bracement around, let's say you have a real bad stomach ache and they tighten it and keep tightening it and this is recorded. Now when it gets so tight that you're getting more pain from here than from your stomach, you tell them. And then that's like a 7.2. So now we know your tolerance for pain is 7.2. Well I mean for one point, all of this is quite nuts, but we accept it. Teachers do this every day. They label people, you know, smart, average, dumb, A plus, C minus, a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, a 4.8 on a social interaction scale. Now when we stop thinking about how strange all of that is then we're under the thral of the technique. And the more that happens in the culture the more it moves to what I call a technopoly. And our job in America in case you didn't know is to make everyone that way, see. And of course Canada is our main project. It has been for years, to make the - I think Steve Allen once said that the difference between - he described Canadians as nice Americans. If Americans were nice, they'd be Canadians. But we don't like this. We want to make you as dumb and as mean as we are as we are presently trying to do with the Germans, the Ital-- in fact we've already done this to many European countries. For instance, television is on 8 hours a day in the average American home. The average American child watches about 5,000 hours of television before getting to school, about 19,000 hours by high school's end. Now you don't have to be against television to say this is really nuts. But we are very anxious to have the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Germans, the Italians, the French and everyone else also do this. And we're being quite successful with the help of advertising agencies.

WHAT THE HELL IS THE IDEA BEHIND CALL WAITING?

This very - of course the - this is fun, a lot of fun. This wonderful question is the kind of question if Marshall McLuhan was still around we'd have so much fun trying to dope this out. Telephones in cars, okay, now you might be able to make out the idea of that. But you know, I was told recently that there are people who have fake telephones in their cars.

SO THEY LOOK IMPORTANT, BUSY.

And I always think if I see a guy in the car next to me talking, cause I don't know if it's fake or not, I always think this guy must be, he must be something, you know. The call - well the VCR is interesting. You know there are studies that show that most people do not watch what they tape, you know when they tape television. They never watch it again. And I think that is very interesting because it suggests that for most of us what we're doing is buying a machine to watch another machine, that we're never going to watch what it was watching but we just kind of like the idea that we had a machine that was watching the other machine. Now as for the call waiting, oh I've heard call waiting -

I CAN'T FIGURE OUT, I DON'T -

What about the - I'm not here now, Peter.

THE ANSWERING MACHINE.

The answering machine. Well I just can't accept an answering machine. I can't talk to an answering machine. You see here's what started -

OH YOU'RE A LUDDITE.

Yes I'm a Lu-- here's where it started. Did you ever go through a toll booth - I'm sure you have this in Canada - whereyou drop the money in a cage and then a machine says, thank you. Now what are you supposed to say to the machine. Do you have to say to the machine, you're welcome. But then if you say you're welcome the machine should be saying, well think nothing of it, right. Now I think there's something awful about a machine saying thank you. Because thank you is the very opposite - I mean actually this is a serious point in a way because saying thank you to a person is supposed to be an expression of authenticity, gratitude and intimacy. It certainly is supposed to be personal. To have a machine say thank you obliterates the meaning of it. Now I think greeting cards which just say happy birthday, Peter, someone else has said that and then I just sign it, Neil and send it to you. That idea of depersonalizing those moments when human beings are supposed to share authentic feelings, I mean that's a pretty dangerous idea. And I think the idea of the answering machine - well first of all I don't like them because if I call- if I call David in Canada and he's not there they're going to charge me for that call. He gets on and says -

BUT HE GETS THE MESSAGE EVEN IF HE'S NOT THERE.

Yeah but I could have called him back, you know. I could have called him back. But no, there are good things about answering machines and I suppose there are good things about havin telephones in cars although I think we need places where there is relief from technology. I sometimes think that the schools of the future will be able to serve our young best just by being places where goes on. Just come to school and sit for 3 hours and just relax. There will be no information coming in. Then when it's over, you go back into the world with the computers and the television and the radio and the magazines to - we're flooded with information. See that's one of the major problems the West is suffering, especially in North America. The problem is information glut, not information scarcity. People have the computer all wrong. People talk about the computer as the technology that generates the information explosion. The printing press created an information explosion and basically solved the problem of how to get reliable information to people. the computer at the moment is only complicating things by amplifying the ah this informatin glut. But the computer in the end may save us in that its main function may be to destroy information, to eliminate information rather than simply -

SPIT IT OUT.

Yeah. But the way it's merchandised is quite the opposite way as if the computer can give you more information faster. We're going nuts for more information faster. What we need are new institutions that defend us from information, protect us from it. So then we can begin to sort out the information we need. That's the big problem.

OKAY. THANK YOU.


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