podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

5 thoughts on “podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

  1. dan visel

    You can play all of us at the same time! that’s exciting.

    I’ve been re-reading evolutionary theory because it’s something I haven’t read for a while and because Postman got me interested in it again. Here’s a piece from the preface of Richard Lewontin’s Biology and Ideology:

    In the [20th] century . . . Western society has become more secular and more rationalist, and the chief sources for social theory have become the professional intellectuals, the scientists, economists, political theorists, and philosophers who work largely in universities. These intellectuals are aware of the power they have to mold public intellectuals, the scientists, economists, political theorists, and philosophers who work largely in universities. These intellectuals are aware of the power they have to mold public consciousness, and they constantly seek ways in which they can publicize their ideas. The common pathway is to become a minor celebrity, known for some all-encompassing and usually rather simplistic “discovery” about the secret of human social and psychic existence. It’s all sex or money or genes. A simple and dramatic theory that explains everything makes good press, good radio, good TV, and best-selling books. Anyone with academic authority, a halfway decent writing style, and a simple and powerful idea has easy entry to the public consciousness.

    On the other hand, if one’s message is that things are complicated, uncertain, and messy, that no simple rule or force will explain the past and predict the future of human existence, there are rather fewer ways to get that message across. Measured claims about the complexity of life and our ignorance of its determinants are not show biz.”

    He wrote this in 1991, which seems another world almost now – very few people knew or cared about the Internet then. But I think what he’s saying about science does ring true in the larger world of ideas – especially in a lower-attention-span world, which the Internet seems to be creating, and I think this is something that we need to be considering.

    If your message is easily parrotable, you’ll get picked up across the blogosphere. If it’s not, you’ve got a problem . . .

  2. ben vershbow

    Yes, I love playing all the tracks at once – turns our little Brooklyn table into a crowded room.

    “Anyone with academic authority, a halfway decent writing style, and a simple and powerful idea has easy entry to the public consciousness.”

    The Malcolm Gladwell phenomenon. Though he doesn’t have the academic authority, the New Yorker pedigree serves just as well.

    I think of popular treatments of “the complexity of life.” Straying away from books, I know, but think of films like Magnolia or Crash that try to deal with complexity and interconnectedness. Here also, you find things get simplified into a catchy notion – that complexity is a beautiful dance, that human beings are like electrons whizzing around the atom, or the gears of a clock. Too cute, too easy. Popular culture can take even complexity and make it simplistic.

  3. dan visel

    You know, that’s exactly why Gladwell rubs me the wrong way – I hadn’t put two and two together, but that’s exactly it. He presents things as being too simple: the world is a lot more complex.

    Film’s actually a really good way to look at this: if a film doesn’t provide the immediate payoff the audience wants (the happy ending, the neat wrap up, the desired moral) it’s probably not going to do well in the market (which is an important part of the equation as well). Complex films don’t win Oscars.

  4. Gary Frost

    The mystic advise that we walk into the darkness. Postman’s only qualification is that we do futurism with the right gear. But we cannot wander off into the future with enough AA batteries. An archeologist at the storm damaged Jefferson Davis presidential library greeted me saying; “Welcome to the19th century.” He was not kidding. No water, no electricity, no gas, no groceries. He was digging up the same artifacts for the second time in the immense debris fields left by Katrina.
    We were driven to a manuscript era and we were invigorated to do our best. Strangely the cell phones worked and we talked to Washington from the 19th century. We asked if the Nation was still interested in the culture of the deep south. Not really, Transformers were at work and in our mobile society the evacuees had left for good. The army trucks were building new roads over the unmarked gravesites of 3000 Confederate veterans, who in their old age, came to Jeff Davis’ home to die.
    We were left hanging about the future and technologies were a sidebar. It wasn’t really important that the 19th century had invented instantaneous communication, digital encoding or photographic representation or that the 21st century was taking the credit for its exploitation of these accomplishments. The gist was that the future deserved to be informed and not deluded. The gist was that the future would be fulfilled as a measure of its use of the accomplishments of a much longer past.

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