Meet the man who predicted Fox News, the Internet, Stephen Colbert and reality TV

The most important media observer of our time died a decade ago -- but saw our superficial, silly side taking over

Published January 4, 2015 9:00PM (EST)

Stephen Colbert, Neil Postman, Chris Matthews    (Comedy Central/C-Span/MSNBC)
Stephen Colbert, Neil Postman, Chris Matthews (Comedy Central/C-Span/MSNBC)

These days, even the kind of educated person who might have once disdained TV and scorned electronic gadgets debates plot turns from “Game of Thrones” and carries an app-laden iPhone. The few left concerned about the effects of the Internet are dismissed as Luddites or killjoys who are on the wrong side of history. A new kind of consensus has shaped up as Steve Jobs becomes the new John Lennon, Amanda Palmer the new Liz Phair, and Elon Musk’s rebel cool graces magazines covers. Conservatives praise Silicon Valley for its entrepreneurial energy; a Democratic president steers millions of dollars of funding to Amazon.

It seems like a funny era for the work of a cautionary social critic, one often dubious about the wonders of technology – including television -- whose most famous book came out three decades ago. But the neoliberal post-industrial world now looks chillingly like the one Neil Postman foresaw in books like “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.” And the people asking the important questions about where American society is going are taking a page from him.

"Amusing Ourselves" didn't argue that regular TV shows were bad or dangerous. It insisted instead that the medium would reshape every other sphere with which it engaged: By using the methods of entertainment, TV would trivialize what the book jacket calls "politics, education, religion, and journalism."

“It just blew me away,” says D.C.-based politics writer Matt Bai, who read the 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” while trying to figure out how the press and media became obsessed with superficiality beginning in the ‘80s. “So much of what I’d been thinking about was pioneered so many years before,” says Bai – whose recent book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” looks at the 1987 Gary Hart sex scandal that effectively ended the politician’s career. “It struck me as incredibly relevant … And the more I reported the book, the more relevant it became.”

Bai isn’t alone. While he’s hardly a household name, Postman has become an important guide to the world of the Internet though most of his work was written before its advent. Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker and Occupy activist, turned to his books while she was plotting out what became “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.” Douglas Rushkoff -- a media theorist whose book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” is one of the most lucid guides to our bewildering age -- is indebted to his work. Michael Harris' recent "The End of Absence" is as well. And Jaron Lanier, the virtual-reality inventor and author (“Who Owns the Future?”) who’s simultaneously critic and tech-world insider, sees Postman as an essential figure whose work becomes more crucial every year.

“There’s this kind of dialogue around technology where people dump on each other for ‘not getting it,’" Lanier says. “Postman does not seem to be vulnerable to that accusation: He was old-fashioned but he really transcended that. I don’t remember him saying, ‘When I was a kid, things were better.’ He called on fundamental arguments in very broad terms – the broad arc of human history and ethics.”

* * *

Postman (1931-2003), who started out as an elementary school teacher, spent four decades at New York University, where he founded the department of media ecology and became chairman of the department of communication arts and sciences. Postman was skeptical of many of the claims made by practitioners of the social sciences, and preferred to describe himself as a teacher or storyteller or – using a term he is thought to have coined – a “media ecologist.”

He was probably best known to the general public for his books of the '80s and early '90s: In 1991, Harper’s magazine paired him with Camille Paglia for a lively debate in which she played the pagan/Catholic hedonist and he the earnest, slightly square Jewish moralist. Even then – in the years before the Internet’s spread – he seemed like a throwback, a “Luddite” to some or an heir to the New York intellectuals of the '50s to others.

Postman was politically liberal in most ways but by today’s standards, something like a cultural conservative: He wanted a common culture, was suspicious of much of popular culture, opposed multiculturalism – at its worst, he wrote, “a psychopathic version of cultural pluralism” -- and found the assault on “dead white European males” silly. He returned repeatedly in his work to the importance of schooling and to an un-commodified childhood, in books like “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” and “The End of Education.” The journalist Alissa Quart calls her books “Hothouse Kids” and “Branded” inspired in part by Postman taking childhood, and its overlap with corporate products, seriously.

Much of his work built on the efforts of Marshall McLuhan, who pioneered communications theory and became trendy in the academy, Silicon Valley and, eventually, with the Wired magazine crowd in a way that Postman has rarely been. “I always had a problem with Marshall McLuhan being considered this super-cool guy who is sort of aloof,” Lanier says. “It reminded me a little of Andy Warhol.”

McLuhan, who was a generation older, was even more a product of the print age than Postman, but his writing on its passing was more ambivalent. He became a guru to the young, gave a wide-ranging interview with Playboy (a publication hard to imagine as a forum for Postman’s ideas) in 1969, and both celebrated and criticized the emergence of a post-print, electronic-primitive global village: “I view such upheavals with total personal dislike and dissatisfaction,” McLuhan told the magazine, adding that once the wrenching change was complete, we would likely arrive in a more creative, sexually open, and less alienated society.

Postman, though, saw himself as a dissenting voice in a swirl of enthusiasm for pop culture, electronic media, and new technology in general. He wrote in “Technopoly,” a book that speaks to the digital age despite being written before it began: “Those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence.”

The technology scholar Sherry Turkle met Postman at a New York University summit in the '80s, at a time in which digital utopians were assailing her work; the two discussed the importance of telling people what they don't want to hear.

“Neil Postman was sensible and encouraging,” recalls Turkle. “He said that my interviews and observations told a story about the personal costs of technology that people would not necessarily want to hear but [which] in the end, would resonate with their experience.” And Postman told her, “People don't want the difficult conversations, but they'll appreciate them."

Turkle is now an MIT professor and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” an essential book on digital alienation. “I think that the growing appreciation of Postman,” she says, “comes from his having started so many difficult conversations.”

* * *

Perhaps most central to all of Postman’s work was the notion, which he shared with McLuhan, that technology is not neutral. “As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it,” he wrote. “Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.” Even more basically, he was concerned not just how we used our tools – gunpowder, the clock, the printing press, the television, the computer – but how our tools use us. And unlike theorists who took a detached, on-one-hand/on-the-other hand view of media, Postman made clear where his values were: “Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have a healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them.”

Unlike McLuhan, who wrote in a dense, aphoristic style, embedded imagery from advertising in his texts and sometimes turned his pages into visual elements in themselves – or like contemporary communications scholars, whose work is often built on impenetrable theoretical language -- Postman was a straightforward and eminently lucid writer in the tradition of Orwell.

In the ‘80s – as network news was dominant, MTV ubiquitous, and a Hollywood actor sat in the White House – the image seemed to Postman to be displacing print, a huge shift from the world Gutenberg made. It was, in a phrase he would use later, a collision of worldviews. The result of his inquiry was “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” (The writer Steve Almond recently quoted from the book to show that Postman had predicted Stephen Colbert: “the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials.”)

The book’s foreword made one of his most famous arguments – that it’s Huxley, and not Orwell, who best foresaw contemporary America:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Postman, of course, was not the first thinker to look at the effects of visual culture on politics. Historian Daniel Boorstin described the process in his 1961 book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America” and several '60s journalists looked at how television shaped the Kennedy and Nixon races.

To Bai, though, “Amusing Ourselves” became “a kind of North Star” for his inquiry into how political coverage shifted away from ideology and issues and toward personality and scandal. (Near the end of “All the Truth Is Out,” Bai calls the Postman book “a brilliant, enduring work, and anyone who cares about the state of our public discourse should read it.”) Part of what struck Bai was Postman’s contrasting of political debate in the Age of Print – the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for instance – and what we get in the Age of the Image. “I was very struck,” Bai says, “by his idea that it’s very much about the technology we have at our disposal.”

To Lanier, though, Postman is not just an anti-television figure. And the fact that his work speaks to an age in which “Mad Men” and “Homeland” have become the new novel or the new foreign film makes a certain kind of sense. “The evolution of history,” he says, “has an ironic sensibility.”

Lanier calls Rushkoff -- whose “Present Shock” was described by the New York Times as  “one of those invaluable books that make sense of what we already half-know” – Postman’s most important contemporary heir. (Both men have won the Neil Postman Award from the Media Ecology Association.)

Rushkoff says that while he and Postman – whom he met a few times – disagreed on some issues, they share important things, including a Jewish moral streak and an insistence on understanding what’s happening to us. “As we move into a digital age, our humanity is coming increasingly under threat,” Rushkoff says. “For Neil it was the cognition-impairing technologies like television. For me, it's more this idea that humans are only necessary insofar as we can usher in the Singularity. Then we're supposed to get off the stage and let evolution continue.”

* * *

Postman often wrote in metaphors and parables, and one of his most poignant and vivid images gives us a way to think about his role in the debate:

Changes in the symbolic environment are like changes in the natural environment; they are both gradual and additive at first, and then, all at once, a critical mass is achieved, as the physicists say. A river that has been slowly polluted suddenly becomes toxic; most of the fish perish; swimming becomes a danger to health. But even then, the river may look the same and one may still take a boat ride on it.

… Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens. Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters.

Read almost three decades later, Postman represents the boatman he described. It’s worth noting, though, that his work is largely ignored in academia. Scholars of communications and media theory are often, though not always, enthusiastic about technological change; many of them team up against copyright protection and in favor of the cult of “free.” Since they don’t typically earn their living from their writing or music, it’s easy for them to cheerlead for piracy and digital “innovation” that leaves artists uncompensated. (There may be other reasons, too: A communications scholar once told me that her colleagues downgraded Postman’s work because it could be read by the layman.)

“His work was almost too prescient,” says Matt Bai. “Now it seems almost like a given, like it’s obvious. How rare that insight is in academic or cultural criticism!”

But as valuable as he’s been to his work, Postman’s name does not often come up inside the Beltway. “My chief criticism about the new generation of political journalism and media,” says Bai, who writes for Yahoo News, “is that they don’t have a broader curiosity about the world. They have to file 12 times a day; they don’t read novels, they don’t read history. So I think Postman has been a bit of a victim of the culture he foreshadowed. The technology is so dominant – for a lot of people, especially younger Americans, it’s year zero. What’s the point of knowing what happened in 1980? It’s ancient. But it’s hard to get a sense of what’s lost until you know what was.”

Jaron Lanier, who works in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, across the continent and several cultural divides from Bai’s Washington, gives an eerily similar assessment of Postman’s place in his world. “If you feel like all information is available, you know less and your thinking becomes narrower,” he says. “The tech world is fairly history free, so nobody comes up. The mystery remains how to get anyone interested in history at all. In a way, Silicon Valley thinks there’s only the present, and the present’s ideas about the future. Whoever’s alive now knows best.”

Oddly, he says, “It’s easier to get information than ever before, but people are much less informed.” Lanier thinks we’re still catching up to his work. “I think Postman’s day,” he said, “might not have come yet.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg