Neil Postman on the Internet

"I mean, am I using this technology or is it using me?"

Earlier this week I came across a video of Neil Postman being interviewed on PBS’s NewsHour program from 1995. You can watch the interview below, but I want to highlight and reflect on some quotes from it. (Some of my quoting is paraphrased for ease-of-reading.)

Here are a selection of quotes from the video with some brief thoughts from me below each one. (Any bolding in the quotes is my emphasis. Italics are inserted where Postman emphasized a word in his speech.)

Postman on “Cyberspace”

Cyberspace is a metaphorical idea which is supposed to be the space where your consciousness is located while you’re using computer technology, on the internet for example. And I’m not entirely sure it’s such a useful term, but I think that’s what most people mean by it.

The most interesting thing about the term, for me, is that it made me think about where one’s consciousness is when you’re interacting with other forms of medium. When you’re reading, where are you? What is the space in which your consciousness is located When you’re watching television, where are you? Who are you? Because people say with the internet it’s a little different in that you’re always interacting with another person. When you’re in cyberspace, I suppose you can be anyone you want.

This is a new idea and something very different from face-to-face co-presence with another human being.

“When you’re in cyberspace, I suppose you can be anyone you want.” This is still true to some extent, but at the time Postman gave this interview, the anonymity provided by the internet was one of the most attractive aspects of the internet.

This portion of the interview really serves to set up the rest of the conversation.

Postman on “Turning Off” a Person

I’ve mostly decided that new technology, this kind or any other kind, is a kind of Faustian bargain—it always gives us something important, but it also takes away something that’s important. That’s been true of the alphabet, the printing press, telegraphy, and right through to the computer.

When I hear people talk about the information superhighway, that it will become possible for people to shop at home, and bank at home, and get your texts at home, and get entertainment at home, I often wonder if this doesn’t signify the end of any community life. When two human beings get together they’re co-present. There is built into it a certain responsibility we have for each other … You can’t just turn off a person. On the internet, you can. And I wonder if this doesn’t diminish that built-in human sense of responsibility we have for each other. Then, also, one wonders about social skills. After all, talking to someone on the internet is a different proposition than being in the same room with someone. Not in terms of responsibility, but in revealing who you are and discovering who the other person is.

This is probably the most powerful portion of the interview for me, especially the part I bolded. Perhaps the most ominous part of the social internet is what Postman identifies here: you can just turn off a person or entire groups of people whenever and however you’d like. It’s like relationship on demand. The social internet may be undermining our ability to endure difficult relationships as it gives us the ability to mute and/or block whomever we want.

Postman on Information Glut

The worst images that come to mind are people who are overloaded with information which they don’t know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant or irrelevant. People who become information junkies.

The problem in the 19th Century, with information, was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity. So humanity addressed that problem with photography and telegraphy. We tried to overcome the limitations of space, time, and form. For about 100 years we worked on this problem and we solved it in a spectacular way.

And now, by solving that problem, we’ve created a new problem that people have never experienced before: information glut, information meaninglessness, information incoherence.

I mean if there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it’s not because of insufficient information. If crime is rampant in the streets of New York or Detroit or Chicago or wherever, it’s not because of insufficient information. If people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and if sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information. Now along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that, “Ah, here. We can do it. If only we could have more access to more information, faster, in more diverse forms, at long last we’ll be able to solve these problems.” And I don’t think it has anything to do with it.

Postman writes a good bit about the information glut problem created by television and the “news of the day” in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was fascinating to hear him talk about it in the context of the internet because if the TV and the daily news created an information glut, social media and 24/7 news content online only exacerbated that problem. More information will not solve our problems. It will just make it more difficult to identify the relevant and helpful information that may help us solve our problems.

Postman on if the Internet Will Lead to Homogenization

Here’s the puzzle about that. When McLuhan talked about the world becoming a global village … Everyone seemed to think that the world would become, in some good sense, more homogenous. But we seem to be experiencing the opposite. I mean all over the world we see a kind of reversion to tribalism. People are going back to their tribal roots in order to find a sense of identity.

Why is it that every group now not only is more aware of its own grievances, but seems to want its own education? … What is it about this globalization of communication that is making people return to smaller units of identity? It’s a puzzlement.

Postman’s foresight is most pronounced here. Sure, there was already some tribalization happening because of the internet back in the mid-1990s, but it was nothing like it is today. This really concurs with my “three stages of the internet” construct that I shared last week. Everyone gathered together online, in the global marketplace of ideas, and initially we were all excited to get to know each other. Now, upon realizing the depravity of humanity and the dissimilarity of each other, we are in the process of reverting to our own villages, “turning off” other people en masse.

Postman on Questions We Should Ask of Technology

Everyone should be sensitive to certain questions. For example, when confronted with a new technology, whether it’s a cellular phone or a high definition television or cyberspace/the internet. Our question should be: “What is the problem for which this piece of technology is a solution?” And the second question should be: “Who’s problem is it actually?” And the third question would be: “If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology?”

I want to echo Postman’s words with a metaphor. Pretend like any new form of technology is a prescription medication you’re interested in taking.

  • What problem is this solving?

  • Is that problem actually inhibiting my life?

  • What are the potential side effects, whether minor or major, that could result from me engaging with this?

Engaging with a new form of technology is not a light undertaking. We ought to evaluate it as strictly as we would a new prescription medication we hope will alleviate an annoying ailment.

Postman on Our Use of Technology

About six months ago I bought a new Honda Accord. The salesman told me that it had cruise control. I asked him, “What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?” (By the way there is an extra charge for cruise control.) He said no one had ever asked him that before, but then he said, “It’s the problem of keeping your foot on the gas.” To which I said, “Well I’ve been driving for 35 years and I’d never found that to be a problem.”

I mean, am I using this technology or is it using me? Because in a technological culture it is very easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm for technology and of course all the technophiles are promoting it everywhere you turn.

First of all, the image of Neil Postman trolling his Honda salesman like this is pretty fantastic. In this final portion of the interview, Postman gives his most pivotal one-liner and it is a question we should always be asking of the technology with which we engage, “Am I using this technology or is it using me?”

Many of us, I fear, will find that social media is using us more than we are actually using social media. Or perhaps even worse, social media is using us but we won’t be able to see it.

I’m so glad I’ve found this Postman interview on “cyberspace.” Despite the dated terminology for the internet, the man was so prescient about the problems it would pose and how our obsession with it would go sideways.