Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts on Neil Postman

Neil Postman had a unique trait you do not see in many people; Postman made his opinions very clear.  The former New York University professor wrote dozens of books, in addition to hundreds of articles and essays.  Postman died in 2003, but his legacy lives on (Boston Globe, 2003).  I will show you why Postman has gained a reputation for being critical of modern technology.
Postman certainly made broad generalizations, but he had good reason.  The amount of technological advances Postman witnessed in his 72 years of life was enormous.  Postman called the effects of modern advancement strange and dangerous (Postman, 1993: 20).  Postman (1993) warns that new technologies alter the structure of our interests and how we think.  When discussing computers, Postman warns users to examine how computers will alter our conception of learning (Postman, 1993: 19).  It is easy to say Postman is a pessimist, but I do believe he presents a legitimate concern that people should think about the good and bad with new technology.  I love Postman’s definition of Technophiles.  Postman gives the name to people who only see what new technologies can do, and not what technologies will undo (Postman, 1993: 5).  How many times do you hear of people standing outside stores for hours to get the latest and greatest new gadget?  Having friends who have camped in freezing weather in dark parking lots, I can tell you these people are not concerned about what problems will occur from their new toy.
Postman’s reputation for being critical of the media and modern technology is evident in his classification of cultures.  While some historians base their labeling on social, educational, or financial standards, Postman manages to incorporate technology.  His approach is brilliant!  Postman considers tool-using cultures scarce in the current world, a culture that was dominant in the seventeenth century (Postman, 1993: 22). Postman said tool-using cultures were created to solve urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower (Postman, 1993: 23).  Postman said this culture was also utilized in the symbolic world of art, politics, and ritual.  He refers to the construction of castles and cathedrals to demonstrate his point (Postman, 1993: 23).  Postman (1993) labeled the 18th century as the beginning of technocratic culture.  Citing the creation of the steam engine in 1765, Postman said technocratic cultures foster the rewarding of more productive inventions and creations, and the shunning of technologies the new tools replace (Postman, 1993: 41).  Lastly, Postman introduces the technopolistic culture.  Postman believes the responses generated in these societies tend to only focus on what new technologies do, not the negative effects (Postman, 1993: 5).
Having studied Postman and his thoughts in the past, I have come to believe he was a man who believed that technology forms how people think.  In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman said, “to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple." I agree completely with Postman.  When a technology eliminates the need for someone to think in order to do a specific task, it cannot help but create an effect, either negative or positive. As the authors of Computer Mediated Communication point out, technology will enable some uses, but restrict other uses, ultimately causing people to use them in certain ways. (Thurlow, Lengel & Tomic, 2007: 43)
In conclusion, Postman appears to be biased against new technologies, but I feel he is simply being realistic.  It is my opinion Postman has presented plenty of reasons for people to be concerned about so-called advancements in technology.  Advancement in technology does not necessarily mean advancement in common sense or the betterment of a society.


Boston Globe. (2003, October 9). Obituaries. Retrieved February 17, 2011, from

Postman, N. (2005). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show Business. London: Penguin Group.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., & Tomic, A. (2007). Computer mediated communication. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications

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