8 March 1931|
New York City, U.S.
5 October 2003 (aged 72)|
New York City, U.S.
Neil Postman (March 8, 1931 - October 5, 2003) was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his twenty books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Conscientious Objections (1988), Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), The Disappearance of Childhood (1994) and The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995).
Postman was born in New York City, where he would spend most of his life. In 1953, he graduated from State University of New York at Fredonia. At Teachers College, Columbia University he was awarded a master's degree in 1955 and an Ed.D (Doctor of Education) degree in 1958. In 1959, he began teaching at New York University (NYU).
In 1971, at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education, he founded a graduate program in media ecology. He became the School of Education's only University Professor in 1993, and was chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication until 2002.
Postman wrote 20 books and more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles for such periodicals as The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, Time, Saturday Review, Harvard Educational Review, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Stern, and Le Monde. He was the editor of the quarterly journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics from 1976 to 1986. He was also a contributing editor at The Nation. Despite his oft-quoted concerns about television, computers and the role of technology in society, Postman used not only books, but also the medium of television to advance his ideas. He sat for many television interviews and, later in life, even had cable television in his home. In 1976, Postman taught a course for NYU credit on CBS-TV's Sunrise Semester called "Communication: the Invisible Environment".
In his 1992 book Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman defines "Technopoly" as a society which believes "the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts."
In an interview, Postman described Technopoly as being about the tendency of technology to be given cultural control of sovereign American social institutions.
Postman argues that the United States is the only country to have developed into a technopoly. He claims that the U.S. has been inundated with technophiles who do not see the downside of technology. This is dangerous because technophiles want more technology and thus more information. However, according to Postman, it is impossible for a technological innovation to have only a one-sided effect. With the ever-increasing amount of information available, Postman argues that: "Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems."
Postman was not opposed to all forms of technology. In page 7 of Technopoly, he agrees that technological advancements, specifically "the telephone, ocean liners, and the reign of hygiene," have lengthened and improved modern life. In his words, this agreement proves that he is not a "one-eyed technophobe."
In Technopoly, Postman discusses Luddism, explaining that being a Luddite often is associated with a naive opposition to technology. But, according to Postman, historical Luddites were trying to preserve their way of life and rights given to them prior to the advancement of new technologies.
One of Postman's most influential works is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In Amusing, Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a "vaudeville act." Postman also argued that television is destroying the "serious and rational public conversation" that was sustained for centuries by the printing press.
In 1969 and 1970 Postman collaborated with New Rochelle educator Alan Shapiro on the development of a model school based on the principles expressed in Teaching as a Subversive Activity. The result was the "Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study" within New Rochelle High School. This "open school" experiment survived for 15 years, and in subsequent years many programs following these principles were developed in American high schools, current survivors include Walter Koral's Language class at the Village School in Great Neck, New York.
In a television interview conducted in 1995 on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Postman spoke about his opposition to the use of personal computers in schools. He felt that school was a place to learn together as a cohesive group and that it should not be used for individualized learning. Postman also worried that the personal computer was going to take away from individuals socializing as citizens and human beings.
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