|Dr. Neil Postman, left, pioneered the field of media ecology. Dr. Lance Strate, right, was a student of Dr. Postman, and now he has expanded on his mentor’s work. Courtesy Lance Strate/POSTMAN PHOTO Courtesy Postman Family|
Was Neil Postman right nearly 30 years ago, when he said that television had trivialized nearly everything about our lives? That our ability to apply reason to make sense of the world had begun to atrophy in the overwhelmingly visual, no-delayed-gratification-necessary world we saw by its blue-flickering light?
And if he was right, what have the technological advances that make TV seem so very old-school done to us since then?
One of Dr. Postman’s disciples, Dr. Lance Strate of Palisades Park, has undertaken the challenge of examining both Dr. Postman’s life and worldview and the accuracy of his predictions.
In his new book, “Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited,” Dr. Strate, who was Dr. Postman’s student at NYU and now is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, continues his teacher’s analysis. His book follows up on Dr. Postman’s best-known work, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” which first was published in 1985. (Dr. Postman died in 2003.)
Dr. Strate, who is president of his synagogue, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, thinks that both Dr. Postman and his arguments are profoundly influenced by the Jewish world in which he grew up.
Dr. Postman, who was born in 1931 to parents who grew up on the Lower East Side, spent his own formative years in Flatbush. “One of the things that we kind of have a leg up on when we grow up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York is that it is multicultural and multilingual,” Dr. Strate said. “When you go to Hebrew school, you learn a different alphabet. When you go to shul, you are exposed to a different kind of book – a scroll. You really learn to be sensitive to the differences between different media, different modes of communication.”
That sensitivity, Dr. Strate continued, is at the heart of a discipline called media ecology, which Dr. Postman pioneered and he now champions.
Dr. Strate knows about such sensitivities firsthand. The son of Holocaust survivors, he is from Kew Gardens in Queens, another heavily Jewish neighborhood.
“The idea is that different media or forms of communication influence the way we feel, we perceive the world, and we behave, and on a larger scale the ways in which we organize ourselves as a society and as a culture.
“Something very profound that Dr. Postman pointed out is that the second commandment doesn’t just say there should be images of God. It says no images.”
That, Dr. Strate said, is because “with words, we can think much more abstractly.” Images are emotional and evocative, but “you can’t make an argument with images.
“Reasoning by analogy is very much at the heart of Jewish learning, and it involves a balance between the spoken and the written word,” he continued. “You can look at ancient Israel as the first great culture to come out of the alphabet. The Semitic alphabet first was introduced in around 1850 B.C.E.
“We are not clear on the history, of course, but within a few centuries we have the Exodus and the law. You can’t have written or codified law without writing. Judaism was the first religion to be based on a sacred written text, the first to venerate the book.
“Monotheism itself – the idea of one God – requires an abstract kind of thinking. God is a God of words – d’varim – not of images, and images are what we see in other religions all the time.”
Once the Semitic inheritance of abstract thought met with Greek philosophy – which itself needed the Semitic alphabet it got through the Israelites’ cousins, the Phoenicians – “that trajectory takes us through Western civilization,” Dr. Strate said. “It was amplified by the printing press, which brought on the modern world.
“The American republic was very much printing, particularly on pamphlets and broadsides. It was the first nation ever to be argued into existence. And one of the places that the Founding Fathers turned to for inspiration was the Torah.”
So what does this have to do with his argument about television, the Internet, and beyond?
“Postman, like many New York Jews, came down on the liberal side of things,” Dr. Strate said. “He was a defender of the potential of American democracy, and he came to the conclusion that television was completely undermining it.
“Building on that, and looking at the expansion of television through cable and satellite, and with the addition of the Internet – we know that there are great benefits that these technologies bring, but the problem is that all we tend to talk about are those benefits.
“Nobody talks at all about what they are costing us, and it is foolish not to look at the price tag. That’s what Postman wanted us to do – to ask, ‘Well, what is all this going to cost?'”
In his own book, Dr. Strate looks at four areas that Dr. Postman tackled first – with the new technology, what happens to journalism? To politics? To religion? And to education? Those four pillars of our culture all were built on words. “All have been damaged by the electronic media,” he said.
Religion, for example, often is broadcast, but religious services need a sense of the sacred, and that sense is hard to come by when you watch it in the profane space of your own home. “When you have religion on television, it is the preacher who becomes the focal point, not God,” Dr. Strate said. “And most religious services look awful on television because they are designed for real spaces, so the most successful kinds of televised religious services use entertainment formats. And when you do that, you lose all sense of what religion is about, and it becomes entertainment.”
Similarly, “more television channels have not given us a more serious form of television. Instead, they have given us more outlets for entertainment.
“They used to argue that we couldn’t get news in depth because there was only 20 minutes for it each night. Today, we have 24-hour news channels – and they still don’t do extended stories. Instead, they concentrate on people yelling at each other, or on sensational stories, and there is a lot of repetition. So the format really hasn’t changed dramatically.
“Politics has not improved much with the electronic media, even with blogs, YouTube videos, and news aggregators. All they have given us is more verbiage.
“And there is a lot of attention paid now to online education, to massive open online courses, but I think the best way to understand what makes for a good education is to look at what rich people do.” People who can afford just about anything “opt for very low teacher/student ratios and real face-to-face contact,” he said.
He explained the subtitle of his book by talking about the difference between the two dystopias imagined by two British writers more or less midway through the last century – George Orwell’s “1984” in 1949 and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in 1931.
“Orwell was not as prescient as Huxley,” Dr. Strate said. “Orwell’s future was totalitarian. Huxley’s was about complete control by technology. We have allowed technology to be a kind of governing force. It is about doing things as efficiently as possible, so other human values get pushed away as a result.
“The reason for the decadence in ‘Brave New World’ is to keep everyone happy and functioning, so they will continue to be productive, and society will continue to roll on.
“That’s one side of the coin now. The other is that we are drowning in information. We don’t know how to say no to any new technology.” Not all new products catch on, he added, but the technologies behind them do.
“At the end, the question that the book raises is whether there is a future for us,” Dr. Strate said. “Is there a way for us to take control of things?”
Judaism had that idea long ago. Jews have known since the beginning that once a week, it is necessary to take a break. Some secular Jews have adopted the idea of “technology Shabbat” from more observant ones; it is a time for them to disconnect from all their devices and interact with the world directly.
Despite the many virtues of our electronics, that occasional and regular disconnection is necessary if we are to continue to advance, Dr. Strate suggests.