Neil Postman, author of "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology", what's your book all about?
The tendency in American culture to turn over to technology sovereignty, command, control over all of our social institutions. In other words, the book is about how American has developed a new religion, as it were, and the religion is its faith in that human progress and technological innovation are the same thing and that paradise can be achieved through greater and greater commitment to technology.
What is technology?
I had to define it in the book rather broadly because not only do I include machinery like television and computers and all of that, but also techniques. I call them invisible technologies because most people don't think of them as a sort of machinery -- things like statistics and polling and bureaucratic forms -- any systematic and repeatable technique that tends to cause people to constrain their thinking about the world.
We talked a number of years ago about television. What impact is technology having on television, and what's the impact on the country?
One of the reasons, Brian, that I felt I did this book is that the last time we talked, as you suggest, it was about a book that was almost wholly devoted to television. When I started to think about that issue, I realized that you don't get an accurate handle on what we Americans were all about by focusing on one medium, that you had to see television as part of a kind of a system of techniques and technologies that are giving the shape to our culture. For instance, if one wants to think about what has happened to public life in America, one has to think, of course, first about television, but also about CDs and also about faxes and telephones and all of the machinery that takes people out of public arenas and keeps them fixed in their homes so that we have a kind of privatization of American life.
One hears people say with some considerable enthusiasm that in the future, putting television, computers and the telephone together, people will be able to shop at home, vote at home, express political preferences in many ways at home so that they never have to go out in the street at all and never have to meet their fellow citizens in any context because we'd have this ensemble of technologies that keep us private, away from citizens. In fact, I think Ross Perot's idea of a town meeting is a new kind of definition of town meeting because it doesn't imply co-presence of people. He wants to do it via electronic media, so that television as well as other technologies redefine all sorts of things.
I mean, television has redefined -- as, I think, we talked about last time -- what we mean by a public debate. We use to use the Lincoln-Douglas debates as an example, as a kind of model or metaphor of what we mean by political debate. These debates would go on for hours. Television has redefined it, so now the two or possibly three candidates stand in front of the television camera and each one is given two minutes to respond to a very difficult question, and the opponent is given 60 seconds to reply. Now, we still call this a debate, but it's a redefinition of that term. Ross Perot's suggestion that we use television as a form of a town meeting is another redefinition of what we once meant by town meeting. So one of the most interesting things about technology is that it redefines our language. It gives us different meanings of older words, and very often we're not quite as aware as we should be of how that process is working.
Good or bad?
Well, in this book I mostly emphasize the bad part. I've done that in most of my books. But I admit happily at the beginning of the book that anyone who looks at technology as an either-or development -- that is, either all good or all bad -- is making a mistake. All technological change is what I call a Faustian bargain. It gives you something, but it also taketh away something. Now, in America -- and this is one of the reasons I thought I should write this book -- we tend to be extremely enthusiastic about technology, about what it is going to bring us, so that almost every American, in considering anything from lasers to computers to television, can tell you for a half hour or more what this new technology will do for us. But there are very few people who have ever considered what a new technology will undo. So I wrote my book from the point of view of what it will undo; how it will change and has changed for the worse some of our social institutions and psychic habits. But this doesn't mean that I'm unaware of the positive possibilities of some of the new technologies.
You talk a lot about religion. What does the new technology do to religion?
I fear that our faith in technology has weakened a more traditional sense of spirituality. Technology implies a kind of rational -- or I should say, an emphasis on the rational because technologies work. See, that's the wonderful thing about them. Airplanes do fly and penicillin, I think, tends to make people better and television does show you someone in some far-off place. So technology works in an unambiguous way -- in the way that prayer, for instance, or even faith in God doesn't always work. I don't think all this began yesterday.
In fact, in the book I try to show how beginning really in the 17th century, the faith that people had in a benign design, if you will, has weakened and in our own century seems to have been replaced almost in a religious sense by a faith in progress and progress through technology: we will reach heaven if we can produce bigger and better machinery and techniques. In fact, there are some people who even believe we can solve the problem of death through technology -- I think it's called cryogenics -- so that even that ultimate problem that human beings have always had to deal with and which our religious systems had always confronted. I mean, that was one of the most significant parts of our religious system -- to help us confront the idea of death.
In a technopoly, we say, well, you don't have to rely on faith. Through science and technology, we'll be able to freeze you until at some future date a solution is found for the disease that is killing you now. So don't worry; just have faith. So, in summary, on your question, I would say that faith and belief in technological solutions has largely replaced what we now might think is an older, more traditional notion of spirituality and faith in some transcendent design.
You made a point early in the book about how Martin Luther got started -- with the ability to proselytize or to sell his point of view through the printed word.
Luther, of course, was absolutely prescient on the impact of the printing press, although in a letter he wrote to the pope after he had posted his thesis on the church door, he, I think, feigned surprise that his message, his complaints against the church had been translated into vernacular languages and spread so quickly all over Europe through the printing press. He thought, as he said in his letter, he had written these objections in academic language, and he didn't think ordinary people would have access to it. But he did know the power of the printing press. He understood it better than almost anyone of this time and was not reluctant to credit the printing press with the advancement of his ideas and of the Reformation. So I like to write about Luther just from that point of view because he understood, say, better than people like Copernicus and later, of course, Galileo what the printing press would mean, although Galileo -- I shouldn't underestimate him, because he was also one who made use of the printing press.
He had one available to him for propaganda purposes -- in particular, spreading the idea that he had invented the telescope, which, in fact, he had not done. But the reason I brought up these matters in the book about Luther and some of the others was to show how new technologies transform everything about a culture. I mean, there's a tendency of people to think that new technology is additive, and I think new technologies are ecological. What I mean is, that if you put the printing press into Europe in the mid 15th century, you don't have 50 years later Europe plus the printing press. You have a new Europe because everything gets changed -- the political system, the religious system and so on.
If you put television into America in 1946, by 1960 you don't have America just "plus television", but a new kind of America, so that our social relations are altered and our attitudes toward childhood are altered and our political system is altered and we get new meanings of old words and so on. That's not something that's new in culture. That's why I discussed Luther in the book -- that this happens whenever you get new technologies. But the difference now is that when Luther lived, the printing press was changing Europe. He understood that. But then Western culture had about 300 years to adapt itself to the printing press. So we developed new forms of economic life, new political ideas, new notions about education -- all organized around the printing press. But in our own time, our situation is much more difficult to cope with because almost daily, it seems, new technologies come on the scene and our social institutions don't have time to assimilate them and reorganize themselves to accommodate the demands of the technology.
As soon as you start to do that, some new technology comes to make that one obsolete, so everyone is in quite a state of confusion. The reason I call America the first technopoly is that more than any other culture that I can think of, we have committed ourselves to technology. Our destiny now is tied up with technology. By the way, the Germans and the Japanese and even the Koreans would dearly love to become technopolies and are moving very rapidly in the direction of American culture.
We are taping this during the Democratic Convention. We're surrounded by technology. But just as important, we're very close to where you live. Where do you work and what do you do every day?
I'm a professor at New York University and chair of a department called the Department of Culture and Communication. One of the things I do every day is receive faxes and send them. Just as a little side note, Brian, at the moment I notice that most people who send faxes still think of them as telegrams. Some people realize that you can write a whole long letter with a fax, but one does get faxes that say, "See you Thursday -- stop -- Hope you'll be there," and so on.
Faxes, I think, may help to restore the skill of letter writing in years ahead. But mostly what we do in our academic way is to try to study these processes that we've been talking about, to try to raise the questions of what's to become of us if we lose a sense of spirituality. If we devote all of our resources and our psychic energies to making bigger and better machinery and designing better techniques, will we become less human in some sort of traditional way of defining that? I notice -- of course, people will be seeing this after the Democratic Convention -- that many people are surprised that candidate Clinton chose Albert Gore as a vice president. People said, "Well, what about regional politics?" because they're from the same region and I think their states are contiguous. What does regional politics mean in the age of television? Does it make any sense to talk about the idea of making sure you have someone from the North or from the Far West if you are from the South and the East. I think that's just one of these ideas that has no relevance in an age of television.
Who owns New York University?
New York University is the largest private university in America. It has about 42,000 students, I think, and about 4,000 faculty. It began in 1831, so it's one of our older institutions. Until recently -- I'd say about 20 years ago -- it largely served the New York City community, and I'd say 80 percent of the accountants and lawyers and doctors and dentists in New York, at least of my generation, had some connection with NYU. Within the past 25 years, I'd say, it's become a great international university, a great research institution. It's not really owned by anyone, although, as I speak, the chairman of our board of directors is Mr. Lawrence Tisch, who also has the controlling stock of CBS. One might wish to say, if one were in a nasty mood, that CBS owns NYU, but it's not really that way. NYU is doing very nicely compared to some of the other big Eastern and private universities like Columbia and Yale, about whom your audience perhaps has heard are plagued with financial difficulties.
How big is your department?
We have 24 full-time professors and I'd say 700 or 800 students. New York University, I should add, has many departments of communication, including its famous Tisch School of the Arts, which produces all of the young and now famous movie directors. But we have discovered that the field of communication is a fast-growing one and will continue to grow. It's pretty obvious to many young people that among the best ways to study any society is to study its communication systems, its message systems. In fact, you could almost define a culture by merely describing what are its dominant modes of communicating with itself -- not only human to human, but now human to machine, machine to human, machine to machine and so on. So there's a tremendous interest in studying this subject from an historical point of view as well as ethical and philosophical and so on.
How long have you been at New York University?
I've been there 32 years.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and, just for the record, was a devoted Brooklyn Dodger fan, which probably explains some of my prejudices against Los Angeles, which are really quite irrational. But if you want to understand my background, I'll tell you about -- I think it was Pete Hamill, the New York City columnist, who once was asked who were the three most evil people in this century. He said Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Walter O'Malley. Your audience may not know who O'Malley was, but he was the owner of the Dodgers who moved them to Los Angeles. But I grew up in Brooklyn and went to school here.
Actually I started at CCNY many years ago.
I went to City College, but then went on to the State University of New York in the western part of the state in Fredonia, which is a notorious place because in one of the Marx Brothers' movies, there's a place called Fredonia. But then I went on for my graduate work to Columbia.
And your degree is in what?
I started out as an English teacher, and my graduate work was largely in linguistics. My first job was at San Francisco State College teaching linguistics.
Thirteen books -- or is this the 14th?
Actually it's 20 if you count the textbooks, but we'll settle for 14.
Just reading the liner notes. It says 13 books. Which one of those 13, at least the consumer books, sold the most?
A book that I wrote with an old friend named Charles Weingartner called "Teaching as a Subversive Activity". That was a book published in 1969. It was about education, and it came during those very hectic and exciting school-reform days when many people were writing books about that subject. I think it sold about half a million copies. So my name first became familiar with leaders in the field of education through that book. But obviously, in more recent years, the book "Amusing Ourselves to Death", which I think has sold about 200,000 copies now, and, unlike the other book, has been extremely well-selling in Europe, especially in Scandinavia and Germany. Very often I'm asked when I'm in Europe if I can explain why a book like "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and another one called "The Disappearance of Childhood" are popular in Europe.
I've given it some thought, and the best I can come up with is something like this: the Europeans -- I'm speaking now of Western Europe -- are about 10 years behind us in their relationship to technology. The Germans and the Swedes and the Danes and the Belgians look across the Atlantic and they see some of the harmful effects of technology, as has happened here in America, so they are more wary about technological change than Americans are. Americans have always had a sort of lust for the new. That's a quote from de Tocqueville. He knew that about us in the mid-19th century. We've had a lust for the new, so we accepted technology more readily than other people, and we have had to suffer some of the consequences of that.
So the Europeans look at this, and they ask themselves this question, which is a good question: "Is it possible for us to maximize the benefits of new technologies while minimizing some of the negative consequences? Can we, through education or political action or social policy, inhibit technology from destroying that which we wish to preserve?" That's a good question, and I don't know the answer to it and they don't know the answer to it, but they're asking it.
I like to put this sort of hypothetical issue to people. Suppose it were 1906 and we knew what we know now about the automobile with a combustion engine and we were able to have a conversation about it, a national conversation, and someone listed for us all of the benefits of the automobile, which are many, and then all of the deficits, including that it would poison our air and choke our cities and create the suburbs -- some people would put on that side, but I might put on this side -- and then we said, "Let's discuss this and then we'll have a plebiscite. We now know what it will do, and we know what it will undo." I think most Americans would say, "Let's go ahead with it anyway." But someone is bound to say, "Let's go ahead with it, but is there anything we could do to reduce this list over here, to minimize the negative consequences?"
Well, in 1906, if we had had such a conversation, even with limited knowledge, there probably were things we could have done to reduce the negative items on the list. When television came along, it would have been, in theory, possible to have the same conversation. "What are the benefits, what are the deficits? Let's talk about it and then let's see is there anything we can plan to do that would minimize the deficits?" Well, we didn't have such a conversation, and with the computers now, we're not having such a conversation. All we hear is what they will do for us. We don't hear what they will undo. So one of the purposes of a book like this was to see if it's possible to start such a conversation and make us more sophisticated in our approach to our new technologies and, for that matter, old technologies.
How's it going?
The book? It's in its forth printing.
What does that mean?
You mean how many copies?
My guess is that at this point probably about 50,000 copies. It's, of course, available only in hardback, and we'll probably do a lot better than that when it's in paperback. But in addition to that, it's being adopted in many college classrooms, which happened incidentally with "Amusing Ourselves to Death". I'm very happy about that because I think the younger people are going to have to think more seriously about technology than any other group in the country, so I'm happy that it's being used in universities.
Do you still teach?
I do. I won't be teaching in the fall because I'm an administrator at least part of the time. That's a new experience for me, Brian, because for 30 years I was, as I still am, a professor, but one who had scrupulously avoided having anything to do with administration. So I don't have as much time to devote to teaching as I once did, but I still do teach. I will be teaching in the spring.
I have to ask you what's happening to you because some of your followers will be disappointed to learn that you just got cable television. You're going to be an administrator and have cable television in your home. What's happening?
I guess moral rot is setting in, Brian. I got cable during the Persian Gulf War because CNN was what one had to watch to know what was going on. But I've maintained it because what is on traditional broadcast television I find now mostly unwatchable. I like old movies, especially those made in the 1930s and '40s, and there are a couple of stations that do that, and, of course, C-SPAN is now essential, especially this program, which is one of the reasons I was so happy when you called.
This is not why you're here, but as an observer, it would be interesting to know what you see on television now that you have cable. For instance, this network is a much different pace, much slower pace. We don't have Nielsen numbers. We know that the audience isn't huge. We go over to another, more commercial operation and it's a much bigger audience and all that. What do you think the impact of the different channels is having?
That's something I've had occasion to think about quite a bit, because when I wrote "Amusing Ourselves to Death", I would have thought that any station that had talking heads on it for any length of time was absolutely doomed -- that people like to watch television, not really to listen to it much but watch it, and what they liked to watch were dynamic, exotic, fast-changing imagery, which the networks and other commercial broadcast stations are providing and, incidentally, as we speak, most cable stations still provide. But I have had to modify that idea somewhat because I have noticed that there are stations -- C-SPAN, for example, but that's not the only one -- are quieter. The pace is slower. You don't have a new visual image to process every 3.5 seconds, and people watch and apparently listen and then go back and watch again. So I'm very encouraged by that. It may be that there are limits to how much the human psyche can take of this fast-moving imagery that has been a characteristic of American television for many years. The Nielsen people tell us that television is on about close to eight hours a day in the average American household, so maybe there are limits to how much imagery people can process. Maybe television itself created a need in people for more quiet conversation and for human faces that can actually be perused and studied and listened to.
In your book you dedicate it for Faye and Manny. Who are Faye and Manny?
Faye and Manny are my deceased mother-in-law and father-in-law, two wonderful people. In fact, in a previous book I wrote called "Conscientious Objections", which was a group of essays, I had occasion to write about my father-in-law Manny, who spent all of this life not far from here on Seventh Avenue as a dress cutter, but who was a man of exquisite taste and reason. There were many people like that in his generation. Of course, my mother-in-law, who died four years ago, was a very gentle and intelligent woman, so I felt I wanted to do this.
Madonna and Mozart?
Madonna? Who's that?
You write about Madonna. You write about Mozart, Beethoven, and you suggest that Madonna shouldn't be the only answer for people. What do you mean by that?
Toward the end of this book, I felt I had to address the question of what should we do about all this? Social critics are usually not very good at answering that question. Their strong point is telling you the bad news. But I did try to say something positive, and I felt the answer might be in education. The idea there is that Madonna and Bruce Springsteen and Hollywood and CBS and all of that is not going to go away. Our young people will have continuous access to them. I suggest, therefore, that in their schooling there should be an emphasis on more traditional forms of expression -- art, literature and otherwise -- not to blacken the reputation of the popular arts, but just to make sure that the young have access to different forms of understanding the world. Perhaps in that way, there could be some sort of synthesis in their education. That is, there's the sort of person Madonna and Bruce Springsteen wants our young to be. That's OK. But there's also the sort of person that Mozart and Dickens wanted people to be.
So I think our young have to have available to them both world views. I'm not -- who could rule out Madonna for anything? I mean, Time-Warner, if I'm not mistaken, just signed a $60 million deal with Madonna, so she's going to be with us in every imaginable form. That's all right. No one wants to stop that. But I think the education of the young ought to pretend as if Madonna is not there in the classroom because as soon as the children leave the classroom, Madonna will be available to them. While they are in the classroom someone else should be available.
Mozart is very popular among a small percentage of the population -- very popular. Why doesn't Mozart appeal to the younger people or the majority of people? What is the difference in this?
First of all, I'm not sure that Mozart wouldn't appeal.
Why doesn't he?
What I mean is that, in part, he is not heard enough; in part, because his music is more complex than Bruce Springsteen. One has to go to Mozart with a prepared imagination, a prepared mind. But also, Brian, Mozart's music, Bach's music, Handel's music, is a different world view. To listen to that music is to believe that there is order in the world, that there's a design in the world, that God's in his heaven and maybe not all is right with the world, but that there is a pattern. It's refined and organized. One can't help but sense that.
To listen to rock music, I think the world view is that there is no order. I think for a lot of young people, this is the world they know and, therefore, the rock music is consonant with their outlook. But I would argue, this is all the more reason why the young in school should be presented with forms of expression that presume that there is an ordered world and that it has some meaning, that it's not all happenstance and arbitrary. Now, I realize that's a somewhat religious idea in itself, or certainly a transcendent sort of idea, but it's not especially sectarian. People did believe in the medieval world and even into Mozart's time and in the early days of our own republic that there was order in the universe and that everything was not just a matter of this and then this and then this and then this and there was not way to anticipate anything.
When you're teaching your favorite subject, what is it?
These days, it's the history of technology -- not just the description of the machinery, but the social effects of new technology. In the book, I make the distinction among three kinds of cultures, two using technocracies and technopolies. I want students to know and get much satisfaction out of their reading about it and talking about it that not all people believe technology _ber alles, that there were people and still are people in the world who have organized their minds and their social values on some other set of beliefs than the redeeming quality of technology.
What's a tool-using society today? You said there were very few of them.
I think what most people would call Third World countries would be roughly what we might mean by a tool-using culture; that is, people whose symbolic world -- their politics, their religion, their education -- are not commanded and dominated by technology. They have tools. They invent tools, but they always invent their tools to solve problems in the physical world, but they do not let the tools control their social and symbolic lives.
Has a study every been done? Take the technopoly that we live in and take a tool-using society that still exists there. Has a study ever been done about who's really, up here in the head, happy?
I don't know.
What do you think?
It's a good question. An anthropologist, Marvin Harris, wrote a book some years ago in which he was talking about how much time men had to spend getting food in a hunter-gatherer society, and figured it out somehow that the average Joe Loin Cloth was probably spending about two hours a day basically making a living and then compared it to someone today who has to spend 10 and 12 hours a day making a living -- if he can get a job at all. I don't think a study would help us, Brian, because it's a question of values. Now, I do say in the book -- despite of what some reviewers have said, I'm not a romantic completely -- that machinery was the best hope for most of the people who lived in the world. Before the 18th century, most people were peasants, and life was hard, nasty, brutish, short, as the saying goes. So there's no doubt that machinery, especially in the age that I call a technocracy, made life better according to values that I think most of us would accept. People lived longer. They lived cleaner. They had more time for recreation and so on.
Can I ask you about technocracy? You had the tool-using, and then we're a technopoly. What's a technocracy?
Technocracy is a culture in which you have serious technology competing with a more traditional social and symbolic world.
Well, yes. America was a good example of this in the 19th century. The two world views -- the technological and what you might call the humanistic, although that loads the case, but the traditional view of religion and education and politics and so on. Those two worlds rub against each other, but technology is not yet strong enough to make the traditional world irrelevant or invisible. We go over into technopoly when the technological world overwhelms the traditional world.
As you know on this show, the talk is always about books, ad I see a lot of different books. One of them was the "Truman" book by David McCullough. It is huge. It's a thousand pages. It sells for $30. This book here sells for $21. It may have a couple hundred pages in it. Most of your books that I've seen have a couple hundred pages in it. What's the strategy?
It's simple. I want people to read the book and, without talking about the book about "Truman" in particular, I think most books are much too long. Of course, some authors write such long books because they want to document something. They want this on the record. But I'm more interested in readers. My books, as you say, tend to run about 200 pages. I think I can say what I have to say in 200 pages, and I think most writers of at least nonfiction and social criticism -- whatever you would call it -- can pretty say what they have to say in 200 pages.
Now, what did you say in this book that almost everybody quotes back to you? The reviewers, the people who read it say, "Hey, professor I read your book and you said . . ."
Most of them concentrate on what I have to say about social science. I don't say much that's very good.
What is social science?
First of all I don't think it exists. I don't think that sociology, psychology and anthropology are sciences, and I try to make a distinction between science and those activities. In fact, I even think, Brian, economics really is a branch of moral theology and should be taught more in divinity schools than in universities. But it does disturb me that so many people have such faith in the subjects that are called social science and go to experts to find out how to raise children and how to fall in love and how to make friends, as if they believe that because these subjects are "sciences" -- in quotes here -- that they are getting verifiable, indisputable truths about the world. So I use social science as an example of really a technique that is part of the machinery of technopoly. Most people who have read book, including reviewers, seem to want to talk about that part of the book more than any other.
One of the things you suggest that ought to be done is that when everything is taught, the history of it ought to be taught along with it. Anything, I assume even economics -- where it comes from. Why?
Because if you don't teach the history of what we once knew about biology or economics or even mathematics, then learning or information becomes a kind of consumer product. Facts become like something you're selling. I think what we want here is for the young to understand that what we think we know at any given time, first of all, is a product of what we once thought we knew. It comes from someplace and that in the future, it will itself change. So the idea is for a teacher to try to show the young that learning is an historical process and that anything that we think we know now will probably be modified in the future. History is wonderfully good for this. History is almost the best consciousness-raising subject that we have available for that.
Are you going to write another book soon? Are you doing it right now?
I did it already.
You've already written another one?
Yes. It will be out in September. I wrote it with a friend and former student named Steve Powers, who is a TV journalist. It's called "How to Watch TV News". It's a different kind of book from this, because it will only be out in paper and it's for a mass market. I always wanted to write a book that people could buy in supermarkets and in drugstores, but one that would be about something that immediately attracts their interest. I mean the sense that, "Oh, yes, I really should know about this because I spent an awful lot of time watching TV news and maybe these guys know something about it that would help me." So that'll be out in September, I believe.
Do you want to give us a hint about one or two major suggestions you make in the book?
It is hard to do quickly, but people do have to know something about the economic basis of news. If you turn on a news show or if you're a regular watcher of some particular news show and you know nothing about how this is paid for and who makes the money and where it comes from, then you are really quite disarmed. So we do spend a little time in the book describing to people what kind of money situation is involved with news shows. I think it would be impossible -- and the best TV people have said this over and over again; I mean people like Cronkite and Dan Rather and the rest of them -- it would be impossible to make any sense out of the world if you confined your knowledge of the world to TV news. You would have to do an awful lot of reading in order to make sense out of what you're seeing on television news. Also, maybe finally on this, I do think people have to understand why decisions are made on TV news shows as to what people will see and in what order. This is not done in a haphazard way. There is a psychologic reason involved in deciding what people will see first, what they will see next, what they will see after that and what they won't see at all.
The title of that book is going to be?
"How to Watch TV News".
And it's going to sell for . . .?
Oh, it's not going to be expensive. I don't really know, but probably about $5.
This is what one of his books in the market at this moment looks like. It's called "Technopoly", and our guest is Neil Postman. Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you, Brian.