Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Neil Postman Thinks About the Internet... (my imaginary conversation)

Some of us Facebook types have been having a discussion on the "Neil Postman Appreciation Group" brought up by Bob Berkman: What would Neil Postman say about Facebook, and "scholarly" social networking sites like Well, I started thinking about it and realized he's already answered the question, several times over. In the last ten years or so of his life, Neil spent a lot of time asking the questions he outlined in "Building a Bridge..." So, in judging the value of Facebook -- or of digital social networking in general -- we might ask "what is the problem for which Facebook is the solution?"

Imagining the discussion that followed when I began to argue in favor of social networking, I believe it would go something like this:

Peter: Facebook keeps me in contact with people I don't see on a daily basis.
Neil: What, have you forgotten how to write? Peter, I remember you telling me in 1986 about how you wrote letters every week to your cousins in Ireland, about how you were a dedicated -- and habitual -- letter writer. What happened to you?
PKF: Writing all those letters took a lot of time and a lot of energy. With Facebook all I have to do is send someone a private message and they get it instantly.
NP: Does it take any less time or energy to sit and think and write a beautifully-crafted letter -- or "message" -- on Facebook than it did when you were writing and sending letters through the mail?
PKF: Well, actually, I don't really tend to write as much on Facebook as I used to in a letter. It's usually just a couple of lines.
NP: Why is that, Peter?
PKF: Well, for one thing I tend to "bump into" (in a disembodied sort of way) one or another of my cousins rather frequently online, and we exchange pleasantries almost on a daily basis. Not as much time passes between our moments of contact, and I don't feel as though I have to provide a comprehensive chronicle of recent events. Besides, that's what my "wall" is for.
NP: Uh-huh. And do you share everything on your wall? Do you share the same sorts of details of your life on your very public profile page that you once did, in letters, with your cousins?
NP: And so would you say that your interactions with your cousins have changed?
PKF: Yeah, I suppose so. They're far more frequent, but not nearly as deep. But isn't that my fault? You're not suggesting that Facebook has done this to me.
NP: No, Peter, but this is also my point: You have done this. But you have done this with Facebook. Facebook giveth, and Facebook taketh away. You have adopted Facebook as a convenience but told yourself that it is (as you consider all new technologies to be) a necessity. This was a choice involving no coercion or compromise of your intelligence or agency. You have accepted, unquestioningly, your culture's assumptions that, in all matters, but especially those of information, more is better than less and faster is better than slower. And you have accepted this knowing full well (as I taught you) that speed, quantity, and convenience are values in their own right and must compete with other values which you might (because you once did) hold in higher esteem. So you did this, Peter, and you continue to do this, beyond all logic. What's wrong with you?
PKF: I don't think you understand the enormity of the change our culture is going through at this moment, Neil...
NP: (~~wry grin~~)
PKF:...I mean, this digital thing is not all bad. It gives us "small people" -- as BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg calls us -- the power to communicate widely with a potentially global audience. In this sense, it is every bit as revolutionary as Gutenberg's printing press. There has been an enormous proliferation of voices in the last ten years resulting in new ideas and new perspectives that otherwise might never have surfaced in a culture of top-down networks and mass communication.
NP: Sure, Peter, I can see that. But to what end?
PKF: Huh? Isn't the opening up of channels of communication to enfranchise the information-disenfranchised an end in itself?
NP: I'm not so sure. Do you ever read Jacques Ellul?
PKF: (~~petulantly~~) Yes...
NP: And perhaps a bit of Thoreau?
PKF: Yes...
NP: Well, then you ought to know that our whole approach, as a species, to the relationship between means and ends has changed. Our technologies, Thoreau said, are nothing more than im--
PKF:...improved means to an unimproved end, yes...I know...
NP: Ahem...Yes...and Ellul reminds us that the values of a technological society present us with a certain...imperative...with which we seem only too happy to conform, namely: to do, to act, to respond, to achieve, to produce, without much regard for what it is, exactly, we are doing, acting on, responding to, achieving, or producing. Technology, as I taught you (and you should have learned by now), answers the human question "how." Ethics answers the human question "why" and it is this question that seems more and more to go missing in our culture. Is giving a voice to those who have none a good in and of itself? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Our culture certainly tells us it is. The values of postmodern, highly technologically-developed "democracies" certainly support this point of view.
But isn't it at all instructive to ask, in the first place, whether those who heretofore have had no voice have anything, finally, to say?
PKF: But isn't this how knowledge increases and spreads, Neil? By opening up channels of information to allow more diverse points of view?
NP: This is how INFORMATION spreads, Peter, not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge is another story. To paraphrase Henri Poincare, knowledge is made up of facts, as a house is made of bricks. But knowledge is no more merely a pile of facts than a house is merely a pile of bricks. There is an epistemology at work here, Peter, and a curriculum. And there is a method. Critical thought, based on propositional language, is foundational to the construction of bodies of knowledge. The ability to discern -- and reject -- useless, irrelevant, and trivial information does not necessarily come easily to the human being. It takes years of hard work and practice to develop the literate mind and the rigors of critical thought. And without these all we have are piles of facts -- and in the digital world, truly prodigious piles of facts. Nicholas Carr asked the wrong question, and in doing so created a strawman argument that proponents of the digital epistemologies have gleefully attacked and destroyed: will Google make us stupid? He misses the point: human beings evolved stupid. We're stupid to begin with. Literacy and critical, propositional thought is the therapeutic intervention we invented to cure our stupidity. Digital technologies, to the extent that they provide us with a shortcut to "information" (again, without regard to the quality of the information) that bypasses these thought processes, don't make us stupid, but counteract the therapies that we ourselves invented to ameliorate our stupidity. Epistemology, curriculum, and method cannot be separated without consequence.
So what digital technologies have done, perhaps, in empowering the information-disenfranchised (as you call them) is not to have spread knowledge, but to have spread stupidity.
PKF: But many of my friends and colleagues insist that these digital technologies support propositional thought, that people are reading more as a result of the internet, and kindle, and iPads, and all the other various venues and applications. Can you deny that?
NP: I can neither confirm nor deny that, and I'll confess to you that I hope -- and pray -- that it is true. But I'll also confess to you that I have my doubts and remain skeptical about such suggestions based on my observations of human behavior, especially where technology is involved.
PKF: Why?
NP: Peter, are you aware of what the two most widely used applications of the internet are?
PKF: Ummm...yes, as a matter of fact.
NP: Well? What are you waiting for?
PKF: E-mail and pornography.
NP: Yes. Virtually 100% of internet users have one or more active e-mail accounts. Nearly 70% of internet users download and view pornography. Now, don't think I'm a prude, Peter (many people believe I am, you know), I'm not condemning people for engaging in an expressive form that is as old as the species. It just serves as an illustration of my point. Given a medium (one that is, in a sense, the accretion of all previous media) that allows for engagement with both propositionally-structured information and presentationally-structured information, people will choose titillation, excitement, and amusement everytime. Reading is difficult work and unnatural; sensory experience is not. I'm reminded of Christine Nystrom's article -- you remember Christine, don't you?
PKF: Of course I do. She was my dissertation chair.
NP: (~~annoyed~~) Oh, yes. That's right, she was. Well, anyhow, I'm reminded of something she once wrote called "literacy as deviance." Her point was that human beings invented writing and eventually print only because we were, at those points, insufficiently technologically advanced to invent television. All of human technological development, she suggested, is aimed at constructing tools that more and more accurately mimic human sensory experience. Hence, our infatuation with "virtual reality" (as though actual reality were not real enough), and her observation that alphabetic writing was merely a detour on this path.At any rate, whether you call it an iPad, or an e-book, or a schmindle, what you're really talking about is a computer hooked to the internet. Come to think of it, what kind of environment are we living in when you can make phone calls on a book? But I digress. As long as we're talking about computers with multiple applications, only one of those being to access text, we're very likely, I believe, to find that people will use them to look at pictures or movies, or listen to music just as frequently -- if not more -- as to read text.There are, of course, the other issues of what we're reading (to go back to our earlier discussion of information) and how we're reading (if you wanted to discuss Sven Birkerts's ideas of the deeply interior experience of "deep reading"), but I think you get my point. I am skeptical about the ability of digital technologies to support the epistemology, curriculum, and method of print culture. Extremely skeptical.
PKF: Listen, Neil, my friend Robert Berkman wanted me to ask you a question...
NP: How long have you known Bob Berkman?
PKF: Well, we've actually never met, but ---
NP: So why do you call him your friend? Look at how new technologies change our language!
PKF: Well, he's a Facebook friend...I know it's not the same thing, Neil, but, look, he's a nice guy, he's smart and asks good questions, suggests good answers -- and his profile picture always has a smile!
NP: Just get on with it, Peter. I don't have all day. I'm playing Bridge later with McLuhan, Innis, and Ong...
PKF: Well, Bob thought you might be more amenable to giving your approval to sites like
NP: What's that? That's a new one to me...
PKF: It's a website for scholars. You have your own page -- a profile page that links to personal information, research interests and activities, etc. Other scholars can "follow" your work, and you can upload your research and get comments from other scholars.
NP: Why in the world would you want to do that?
PKF: Well, again Neil, it's this idea of opening up channels of communication, getting reactions from diverse perspectives, generating synergy...
NP: Synergy, schminergy, Peter. You're talking gobbledy-gook here...Peter, let me ask you a question.
PKF: By all means.
NP: You've written a book now, correct?
PKF: Ummm...actually, my second book just came out. It's called "The Meta --
NP: Yes, yes, whatever. My point is, did you write this book by yourself, or did you organize a committee to write it for you?
PKF: I wrote it myself, Neil, but there were a lot of things I was writing about that were, quite honestly, beyond the boundaries of my expertise and personal and academic experiences. I found it both useful and necessary to have the manuscript read, at various stages, by philosophers and theologians to make sure I was miving in the right direction.
NP: And did you find these philosophers and theologians on
PKF: No.
NP: Why not?
PKF: Well, I don't know most people on that website ---
NP: You don't know Bob Berkman but you call him your friend...
PKF: But that's Facebook, and that's different. What we're talking about now is--
NP: Facebook with another name. You didn't put your work up on for comments, and you wouldn't have accepted comments or criticisms that were offered on because you don't know who is leaving them. Oh, you may see their names there, but that doesn't mean you "know" them. Instead, you found your readers where?
PKF: Oh, these were people I knew personally and respected. These were people who others know and respect too.
NP: Another question, Peter, beyond the specific issue of specialized response. You didn't write chapters of this book and post them to get others' responses?
PKF: No.
NP: If you had, would you have modified or changed your manuscript in any way?
PKF: No.
NP: Why not?
PKF: Oh, simple: this was my book based on my ideas. I've had this experience before in conversations about this book, and about the perspective from which I wrote it. People can't touch my data, but they hate my conclusions. We get into arguments about "the meaning of it all," and, at the end of the day, people are just resistant to points of view that stray too far from their comfort zones. I thought about posting excerpts on, and in fact did post excerpts on -- which is more interested in literary merit than scholarship -- but decided to avoid I thought there's be too much pressure to conform to more mainstream points of view.
NP: You can tell Bob Berkman that I agree. My books, for better or worse, have all been mine.

(Anyway, that's how I imagine the conversation going...)