Scott Timberg writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]