Neil Postman (1985)

If ever a book was timely, this is it. Despite being thirty years old, Postman has nailed both the politics of the modern age and the dangers of “big data”.

The current buzz around “Amusing ourselves to death” comes form the recent US election, which seems to have degenerated into a media-driven circus that turned its back on “real” politics. Postman’s diagnosis of this – from decades ago, of course – is that attention spans have been systematically destroyed by television which, as the dominant medium of the time, forces all other discourse into its own form. He is icily dismissive of television debates or of any attempts to use it for serious or educational purposes, since there’s no scope for measured explanation: he contrasts this with the presidential debates between Lincoln and Douglas that lasted (literally) for hours without benefit of anything but oratory.

One wonders what Postman would have made of the internet. His ire is largely focused on television’s image-based format, which discards the deliberation of the printed word and so changes the ways in which information is expected to be presented in other media as well. The internet seems superficially to be the apotheosis of this idea, but I’m not completely convinced: most internet content is textual, after all, especially the blogs and fake news that receive most of the condemnation at the moment. (Brexit, interestingly, was quite TV-driven, and so maybe a better illustration of Postman’s thesis.)

As well as the media issues, Postman also prefigures the era of big data with a comment that would be almost throwaway at the time he wrote it, since his readers wouldn’t have seen what was coming:

Thus, a central thesis of computer technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organisations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

That – from before the commercial internet – is a perfect summing-up of the modern problems with privacy and content sharing, familiar from Who Owns the Future?. While I would argue that computers have solved a huge number of problems for ordinary people, and have potentially enabled them to explore the truth of a massive array of propositions of daily importance, I can’t deny the accretion of power in the centres of the network. It’s amazing that so prescient an analysis was performed so early.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 28 March, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)