Informing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman appears on The Open Mind on December 8, 1990 to discuss the problem of information glut with host Richard Heffner.

And, for those of you who prefer the word to the image (transcription courtesy of The Open Mind):

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and every once in a while I feel the need for what I’ll just call a really powerful intellectual fix, a lift out of the doldrums of everyday discourse. And when I do, I almost invariably think about my friend Neil Postman, author, scholar, and Professor of Communications, Arts and Sciences at New York University, inviting him here to THE OPEN MIND to share with me and with you some of hi more outrageous recent opinions about the world around us.

Now, last time we talked about his delightfully irreverent book Conscientious Objections…Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education. Before that we had focused quite seriously on Professor Postman’s brilliant volume: Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I now as consistently assign to my students as I do Walter Lippmann’s classic Public Opinion.

But, moving on in his own incomparably aphoristic way, Professor Postman has thematically turned now from Amusing to Informing Ourselves to Death. And I want first to ask this past master of the brilliant aphorism just what he means by this one.

Postman: Nothing more dazzling, Dick, than that we entered an age of information glut. That this is something that no culture has really faced before…the typical situation is information scarcity. But, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, I suppose, we began what you call the “communications revolution” and going on into our own century, we now have flooded our culture with media of communication technologies that are devoted to filling up our lives with information. And so for the first time, too much information becomes now a problem to be solved.

Heffner: But that’s a problem that would seem almost impossible to exist. Certainly when I was growing up and even years later, when you were growing up, I mean the more you know, the better off you are. Isn’t that the basis for our society?

Postman: Well, I think I think that’s the standard way of looking at things. That lack of information can be very dangerous, and…we agree. But at the same time too much information can be very dangerous because it can lead to a situation of meaninglessness. That is people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful. That they live in a culture that is simply committed through all of its media to generate tons and…of information every hour without categorizing in any way for you so that you don’t know what any of it means. I mean when you step off an airplane at Kennedy you get a sense of exactly what I’m talking about because there you, you’re, you’re suddenly greeted with every possible technology telling you every possible piece of information. So that there…this becomes, I think a threat. Not only to one’s peace of mind, but much more important that that, to one’s sense of meaning because what the problem is now…not how to get information to people, but how to help people get some meaning from what’s happening.

Heffner: Now, wouldn’t the technological masters of our time say, “the answer to that would be found with technology itself”?

Postman: Well…

Heffner: That technology would handle the problem.

Postman: Well, I don’t think so. I mean it, it…some people say that the great, long-range advantage of the computer will, in fact, be in that direction. Not that the computer will be a great information dispenser, but that it will be an information destroyer, in that it will help people sort out the irrelevant form the relevant. But I, I don’t see much of that yet happening. I mean I do grant your point that it is possible to invent technologies that will actually restrict for you the availability of information. But so far it seems very clear to me that the great crisis in American, especially, by the way in education is that we are overwhelmed, flooded, drowning in information. No one knows what to do with it. No one knows how to classify it, and it’s I think, the great sort of symbol of this problem is to be found in that E. D. Hirsch book, Cultural Literacy in which he proposes a s way of educating, educating our students that we, we make sure students know this list of 5,000 names and places and dates and aphorisms and so on. And that was in the index of his original book, but since then he and his colleagues have produced The Cultural Literacy Encyclopedia so that there are probably 20,000 names and places and so on that you’re supposed to know. And, but of course, much of the list is arbitrary because for every item he has that you…he thinks you should know, you could name ten things that you do know that are not there. So that this is endless, and the, the great omission in Hirsch’s book is that he has no reason for anyone knowing all of these things except that they are part of what he calls our “culture”. But this is the whole question. If culture is communication and if it’s shared information, then what is our culture now? We have 15,000 newspapers in America, about 15,000 magazines. There’s 60 billion pieces of junk mail come into our mailboxes every year. There are millions of computers and millions of television sets and radios and it’s all jut pouring out stuff and no one has any sense of what to do with it.

Heffner: But, Neil, you talk as though we’re being flooded, flooded by different bits of information and wouldn’t you say that those 15,000 newspapers and the million bits here and the million bits, they’re basically all the same, or very much nearly all the same? And that what we’re getting is s wide range of inputs into our central nervous system…

Postman: (Laughter)

Heffner: …but that essentially one bit of information is not very different from another bit of information. What one newspaper prints is hardly different from what 14,999 others print.

Postman: I had a chance to give a talk to some newspaper publishers last May. They wanted me to say something sensible about the future of newspapers. I suggested to them, going along with your idea here, Dick, that instead of organizing their paper, their papers according to international news, national news, regional news and so on, they should use the seven deadly sins and have “lust”, “greed”, “gluttony”, “sloth” and so on and then categorize the stories in, in those ways.

Heffner: I thought that’s what they did every day.

Postman: Well, some of them said they might, there’d be some people who would be in all categories…I won’t name their names. But, I think you’re right, that I mean…in, in…most newspapers do tend to have the same sort of information. But I think what newspapers…the newspaper of the future might have to move more in that direction, which I had mentioned only half-facetiously. To…not just to have information, but to classify it so that it would have some moral or sociological meaning. Let’s take the front page of The New York Times as an example. Probably 15 stories, I would say, each day. What does one of the stories have to do with any of the other stories? I mean if there’s a story about Donald Trump’s troubles with his finances, if there’s a story about the Persian Gulf, if there’s a story about a rape in the Bronx…if there’s a story about Daryl Strawberry going to Los Angeles, what does it mean? I mean it’s a kind of montage but unlike Raul’s paintings, it doesn’t take on any meaning as you get further away from it. So it may be that newspapers will have to move more and more in the direction of being meaning-givers, rather than information-dispensers. And, of course, one would have to say the same thing about television when you watch a news show on television almost nothing has anything to do with anything else, which raises a very interesting issue, Dick. Why do…why don’t…why aren’t people outraged, for instance if they’re watching a television news show, and there’s a story about a murder in the Bronx, or a rape some place, and this is followed then by a commercial for Levis or United Airlines…why don’t people, in the normal course of events say, “This is outrageous. How can you expect me to react to the meaning of a rape in the Bronx and then the next second expect me to have a different emotional response entirely to a commercial about jeans? Isn’t there something wrong here?” Well, from the standpoint of our world, there isn’t anything wrong because nothing leads to anything else or is connected to anything else. It’s “this happened and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.

Heffner: Which leads you to believe that we are less well-informed or better informed? What do you really think about that?

Postman: I, well I…we may be…we may be better informed, but I think we are, we are less coherent in our understanding of information. I mean there was a time when the word “information” always had associated with it “action”. That is, people sought information in order to solve some problem in their lives. And information was the instrument through which they would solve this problem. Then, beginning in the 19th century, information became a commodity, beginning actually I think with telegraphy. Something you could buy and sell. And the action association began to diminish so that now there is nothing but information and we’re not really expected to do anything with it, just consume it.

Heffner: But doesn’t that mean that essentially your major thesis that we are informing ourselves to death, as we…as in your previous book we were “amusing ourselves to death”… doesn’t this have to be seen in a somewhat different perspective? We’re not informing ourselves to death, we have access to information. If, what you say we used to do with information, we used to act upon it, well we’re not acting upon this information, it isn’t really information as it was in the old days. Therefore, so what? What we have created, what technology has created for us is access and if there is an intellectual or a political leader who would bring us together, looking for as particular kind of information, then we will access ourselves to that information.

Postman: Ah, well, there…there’s…there’s see, there’s the rub. Because to know what to do with information depends on one’s having some sort of conceptual framework. I sometimes call it, and some of my colleagues do, some “narrative”, some “story” which helps you to decide which information you will seek out and why you want to seek it out, and what it’s good for. The great story of Genesis has lost much of its force as a, as a conceptual framework for helping people to know what to do with information and how to confront the world. The great American story of…that America was not just some experiment in government, but part of God’s plan, which is a wonderful story that Americans believed in for 200 years…I’m not sure that we believe in that story…the great narrative of democracy. And what we need…you said some new…some politician will come along and provide people with some great narrative, great story, which will help people to organize all the information that they would have access to.

Heffner: Isn’t that…

Postman: Well, I mean who…who’s done that? Who’s come up with some organizing tale that most people can believe in? Even the great story of inductive science has lost a lot…a good deal of its meaning because it does not address the several question s that all great narratives must address. Where do we come from? What’s going to happen to us? Where are we going, that is…and what are we supposed to do when we’re here? Science couldn’t answer that and technology doesn’t. Even this great story of human progress seems to be failing us at this point, but I do think you’re right. The next great figure in, in, in America, and, indeed, in the world will be someone who provides us with some sort of narrative which would help us give structure tot his information chaos.

Heffner: You know, in my time, the three Presidents who were in a sense the most simplistic, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan…simplistic in the sense of being simple in terms of our interpretation of what they were saying, we could understand, they were telling, as you put it, they were telling a tale, there was a story. It was the story of America. To Lincoln, before them.

Postman: Well, I…I…think you’re right.

Heffner: Ronald Reagan is not that long ago.

Postman: Yes, I think…but there were problems with Reagan’s story, but he tried mightily to, to tell us that it was morning in America…

Heffner: Indeed.

Postman: …and that it was, it was somehow still the 19th century, and we still had neighborhoods and we were still a pious people, and words like “honor” and “fidelity” were important. He did communicate that sense. But, but it didn’t…I mean people voted for him I think because they wanted very much to, to believe that story. The problem is that someone like Reagan and President Bush as well, who I think would also, also attach himself to that story in some ways, being free market extremists, rather…incidentally than conservatives…were very much interested in the full exploitation of new technologies for economic gain, and therefore tended to undermine the very institutions that made such ideas as family loyalty and piety possible. But, but I think your observation is a good one. People like Roosevelt and Reagan and they can be linked in this way, were great story-tellers in the sense that I mean it. They, they tried to put forward a tale we could believe in. And Dukakis, I mean…my, my…it’s, it’s comic that Dukakis’ tale was that he was a basic accountant who could manage this great corporate enterprise we call America. It was an awful story.

Heffner: Neil, do you believe that our involvement with technology makes it impossible, or less possible for us to be able to turn to, to create and then to turn to the kind of leadership of a great story-teller like Reagan, or Roosevelt, or Eisenhower?

Postman: Well, well…I…no…because…I mean it does make it more difficult because technology itself, Dick, is a great story. The idea that it is through technological progress that we will achieve happiness and that therefore it is a good thing for us to adapt ourselves and change our culture to fit the needs of technology because this is the…it is on the wings of technology that we will find paradise. That in itself is a, is a story in which many people believe. But I think that is beginning to fail. Now one hears of the great story of ecology, of stewardship of the earth beginning to, to take hold with some people. And that maybe a wonderful new story that will capture the imagination of people, even those who at the moment seem committed to the great technology as progress story.

Heffner: Let’s…let’s go back to the, to the, to the very phrase that you have used: “informing ourselves to death”. Is there an antidote before we are, are “done in” by technology?

Postman: Well, of course, I think, you know, as someone who’s been in education all my life, that’s – for me, one of the great stories, narratives that people are modifiable through education and their beliefs can be changed. I think through education we can make people rather more aware of what our, what kind of bargain technology is, helping them to distance themselves to some extent. I think that is possible because, see Americans are in love with technology, which is a problem in helping them to develop any distance from it.

Heffner: Don’t you think that technology well programmed…is it, is it…do you reject that belief, that faith, that technology, well programmed, but a story-teller can make us free?

Postman: What do you mean by “well programmed”?

Heffner: I’m talking about…

Postman: It’s a frightening phrase…

Heffner: …well, I’m talking about the kind of story telling that you look for. I’m talking about the kind of narrative, the kind of larger picture of our purpose that you have referred to here.

Postman: I think technology understood is a great Faustian bargain. Technology that…technology giveth and technology taketh away. If we, if we understand that tale, then with every new technology we would have to ask, “What will it give us and what will it take?”

Heffner: Don’t you…

Postman: …”take from us”?

Heffner: …don’t you really…not what will it give us inevitably or what will it take from us inevitably, but what we can make it give us and what we can prevent it from taking away from us?

Postman: Okay. But, we’d…we, we can’t be so naïve as to think that we are completely in control of…of any technology.

Heffner: If not we, then who?

Postman: Well, to some extent, the technology has its own agenda. I mean if you build a 747, you may not want to build one, but once you build a 747, you’re not going to use it to carry commuters from Scarsdale to New York. Once you build a 747 the structure of the machine itself will tell you how you’re going to use it. And if you build a combustion engine machine, while you could use an automobile to raise chickens in, but it’s very unlikely. In other words, every technology has an agenda of its own. If we understand what that agenda is, we have several options. One, we may not want the technology to begin with, or second, if we can’t help getting it, we may want to, through social policy, political action and education, in some way minimize its negative consequences as we perceive them and predict them and maybe even maximize its constructive possibilities.

Heffner: But it seems to me that you confuse, you mix up the 747 with the technological ability to fly or call whatever you, whatever you will. You make the inevitable outcome of certain inventions and certain manipulations of our technology…a 747 that holds 452 people, or whatever, and is not going to go to Scarsdale from New York City, but it’s going to go a great distance, creating the ability to travel great distances for many people, etc., etc.

Postman: And, by the way, by increasing social mobility, may be breaking up the structure of the family. I mean one…suppose it were 1903 now, Dick, and we knew as much as we know now about the automobile.

Heffner: We’d never let it happen.

Postman: Well, I don’t know. I mean if we made, put on a chalk board on one side all the advantages of having an automobile, and, and they would be considerable, and then on the other side we put the disadvantages, our air would become poisoned, our cities choked, the suburbs would be created, etc., and we must include the beauty of our natural landscape would be sacrificed to some extent. And then we presented it to the American public. Said, “Well, here’s a new technology. This is what we will get. This is wheat it will do, and this is what it will undo. Now, let’s have a plebiscite”. Well, I think Americans would say, “Let’s do it”. But if we put it that way, they would also say, “Let’s do it, but is it possible for us to minimize in some way the negative consequences, and even maximize the positive consequences?” Now that would represent a level of awareness concerning technological change that I think could be the basis of a brand new story, that is consciousness of the fact that we are technological creatures and have to learn how to control it and ourselves in the face of technology.

Heffner: Now we’re just getting to where we ought to start this discussion, and of course, I’m getting the signal we have no more time.

Postman: Ah, technology controls. (Laughter)

Heffner: (Laughter) No, what we did with technology. Neil Postman, thank you so much for joining me again on THE OPEN MIND.

Postman: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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