So we have finished the book! This was my second time through so it was interesting to see what I had underlined before and what I caught this time around. Postman says that the central thesis of the book is that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. I won’t rehash my summaries from before. You can read the post on chapter 11 to see more detail on these competing visions. There is a nice summary in the introduction:
“In short, Orwell feared what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”Page xx
It’s no secret by this point that I really like this book and agree with the author’s core message. The book’s primary contribution is to make us stop and consider the implications our technology is having upon how we receive our information. It matters because how we communicate affects what we communicate.
A Way to Think About Technology
Postman presents a very helpful framework for understanding the educational crisis we are in. The three shifts of information communication:
1) The shift from oral to writing in Athens
2) The shift to print with Gutenberg
3) The shift to television (and its counterparts)
Modes of communication affect the content they carry. The TV is the child of the telegraph and photo, not the book. It’s like a genealogy of how we know things (epistemology). This helps us categorize social media, streaming services, etc. For instance, Twitter is telegraph-sized blogs. The problem, of course, is there is no room for nuance or careful thought. So people developed “threads” by replying to their tweets. There is an “unroll” function you can use that will take the thread and make it into a single post. We are now micro-blogging blog-sized posts which is an ineffective use of the platform.
It would be very easy to ramble on about technology and social media, but I want to narrow my focus. Postman’s concern is that with TV becoming the dominant media everything must now be entertaining, even if it shouldn’t be. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Is Postman right? I am afraid he is. But the developments have come with positives as well.
Social Media is very good at entertaining and creating awareness. I have benefitted and learned things through the increased connection. Thanks to Social Media the world has never been flatter.
Also, advancements in technology have given greater access to educational resources for many around the world. Third Mill is a ministry that offers seminary education for free with a particular focus on countries where there are no Christian seminaries and resources are scarce.
I was just at a Veteran’s Affairs event for local clergy on suicide prevention and PTSD awareness. The resources available are amazing including video counseling services for veterans who are struggling.
These are just a few examples (of many!) of the positive benefits our technology and screens are having in our country.
While Social Media is great for awareness it isn’t good for much else other than entertainment. There is no room for nuance, critical thinking or reasoned debate. I’m not saying you can’t have helpful debate online. I am saying to do so you have to work against the platform’s design. I have debated a few people or read a few debates and profited from it. But those few positive moments are drowned in a sea of thoughtless online hostility.
Also, what exactly are we becoming aware about? What real-life value does this information have or is just a collation of triviality that becomes background noise in our lives as we become know-it-alls?
Consider some YouTube stats: 500 hours of content is uploaded every minute of every day. 1 billion hours of content is streamed daily with an average viewing session running 60 minutes. 60 minutes of staring at a rectangle in your hand or on your desk. That’s just YouTube! We aren’t talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or their competitors. At this point, a “sea of amusements” starts to feel like a tidal wave.
Screens can make things very accessible and entertaining. The problem is that when everything becomes entertainment it also becomes trivial and meaningless.
We need a better view of technology
My wife and I used to watch a show called Dave and Kate Plus 8. It was a reality TV show (yeah, I know. Back off.) about a couple who had octuplets. Their life was crazy and entertaining. Well, it was until they got divorced. The question was: How much did the video camera exacerbate the problems in their marriage? According to the couple it didn’t at all. There was NOTHING that adding a camera made worse. They also didn’t want to lose their contract. I didn’t buy it. Of course it made it worse. One thing we know about reality TV is that once the camera turns on it is no longer reality. It is entertainment. But this is how we often think about technology. The screen isn’t making anything worse, it’s a point of help and relief…right? It’s my friend. Maybe not.
If anything Postman’s book infuses a healthy skepticism that views our screens with suspicion. It’s not that our tech is evil and should be burned while we all go live in the woods like Thoreau. Even he lived close enough to home so his mom could do his laundry. But it does push us to consider that our tech devices and platforms are made by people with different goals. Technology is not some unmitigated good. I know without a doubt that I must be actively discerning about which technology (screens and apps) I use because it affects my mind and emotions. How we communicate affects what we communicate. It also affects how we think.
Postman challenged how I think about entertainment for myself and my kids. I no longer believe in “educational TV”. It’s just a form of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that. An educational show can be used to reinforce a concept that has been taught to a student. However, it cannot replace instruction and practice. Positively, this means that I can let entertainment be entertainment and enjoy it as such. But like candy, it’s not healthy for me to have constantly throughout my day.
Postman encouraged me to embrace “boring things” that press me to think and draw my own conclusions. To some degree, we are losing the ability to think our own thoughts. Most of us parrot what we heard from people we agree with. But did I weigh the evidence? Did I consider alternatives? Or am I just repeating what my favorite podcast said about X?
This is coming through the vast array of entertainment options we have. I don’t need to be entertained all the time and not in every context. Sometimes I just need to be bored. Sometimes I need to sit in silence. Silence, you will remember, is that thing that happens when there is no noise and you freak out because you start to feel things.
Bringing it home
I am now the old man yelling at the clouds. But all this adds up for me in two concepts: freedom and meaning. I do not have to be entertained constantly throughout my day nor should I be. I am not trying to escape my work or my family to get the screen for my dopamine hit. It means that I can engage in my life in a way that takes my time seriously. I am free to do things that matter to me and others.
These are my conclusions from this book. Certainly, people would read this and dismiss me as a judgmental Luddite. But I condemn no one. Rather, this comes from a guy who has finally had a falling out with a terrible friend from childhood: Me and my tech. Postman helped me realize how much I had come to rely upon entertainment in too many areas of my life. I hadn’t considered what the screens were doing to my mind.
I am not saying you have to agree with me on this. That’s not the point. I hope that Postman’s arguments would push us to consider the unintended consequences of our technological advancements. This isn’t about why we should get rid of everything. It’s about taking the time to think about how our modes of communication are affecting us. Because I don’t plan to stop using my computer or the internet. I will watch TV and movies with my wife and children. I just want to do it with eyes wide open.
I am convinced that the best way to treat technology is not as an all-purpose good, but like a pocket knife. You have a specific job for it and it does it well. You use it and you put it away so you can get on with your life.
In the end, I come back to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q1:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Huxley may have been right in his diagnosis and concern for the future when he made his prediction those decades ago. But Postman, like Huxley, are limited in their solutions. They only can drearily hope in education. But education will not save us from self-enslavement to our entertaining tech. There is always hope, true hope, because Christ is Lord. He frees us from the bonds of sin, removes the shackles of the technocrats, and set us loose to follow him into eternity. Christ awakens our souls to realize that what we want is not passive amusements, but active wonder and awe.
By grace I am resolved to know no master but Christ because I was made for love and glory. So I will not cede my mind, will, and emotions to a glowing screen or programmers in Silicon Valley. I will not sacrifice my life upon the altar of entertainment. By his grace, God has called me to good works which he planned in advance for me to do. In his kindness, God has also given earthly comforts. Rather than pit God’s gifts and duties against each other, I want to glorify God by the enjoyment of his gifts as I go about the business he set for me to do. I am compelled to seek my satisfaction in the pleasure of God. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“We become what we worship either to our ruin or restoration.”G.K. Beale
Huxley rightly feared what we love will ruin us, but the gospel teaches us that who we love will save us…even from ourselves.
Well that is the last post on Postman (Yes, I have been waiting to use that pun). I hope you enjoyed the book or were helped by my summaries. I look forward to reading our next book together. Thanks for reading!
Have thoughts you would like to share? I’d love to read them! You can contact me here.