TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Informing Ourselves to Death

Informing Ourselves to Death

TELECOM Digest Editor (
Sat, 11 Jun 2005 21:20:05 EDT

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note:
This article originally appeared in TELECOM Digest in January, 1994,
about eleven years ago, and was a speech given in 1990 -- now about
fifteen years ago, by Neil Postman at an IBM conference in Germany. In
1994, then Vice-President Gore gave a glowing report on the 'new
thing' available called the 'internet', and how it was going to
revolutionize the entire world. In those long ago times -- the early
1990's -- _before_ spam, _before_ most of the ills which plague us on
the modern day net -- to say nothing of four years earlier when
_almost no one_ was on the net, Mr. Postman was right on the mark,

And sometime around 1995 or so (I do not remember the exact date), I
put a message out saying "wait about ten or fifteen years, until
almost everyone is connected". Well, that time has come, or rather,
it is well on the way. I thought maybe Postman's message from 1990
would be a good refresher course for us. PAT]

========================= from 1994 ====================

Awhile back, I sent out a transcript of a speech made by Vice-President
Gore discussing the 'superhighway' concept going around these days. A
response was received from Bill Pfeiffer, passing along an interesting
alternative viewpoint to that of the White House, and I thought you
would be interested in seeing it.


From: (Bill Pfeiffer)
Subject: Rebuttle (of sorts) to Gore's Speech
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 1994 18:12:41 -0600 (CST)


Here is a file of a speech by Neil Postman who has a slightly
different perspective on the Information Superhighway.


Source: Neil Postman, German Informatics Society, 11 Oct 90, Stuttgart

Following speech was given at a meeting of the German Informatics
Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) on October 11, 1990 in
Stuttgart, sponsored by IBM-Germany.

by Neil Postman

The great English playwright and social philosopher George Bernard
Shaw once remarked that all professions are conspiracies against the
common folk. He meant that those who belong to elite trades --
physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists -- protect their special
status by creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the
general public. This process prevents outsiders from understanding
what the profession is doing and why - and protects the insiders from
close examination and criticism. Professions, in other words, build
forbidding walls of technical gobbledegook over which the prying and
alien eye cannot see.

Unlike George Bernard Shaw, I raise no complaint against this, for I
consider myself a professional teacher and appreciate technical
gobbledegook as much as anyone. But I do not object if occasionally
someone who does not know the secrets of my trade is allowed entry to
the inner halls to express an untutored point of view. Such a person
may sometimes give a refreshing opinion or, even better, see something
in a way that the professionals have overlooked.

I believe I have been invited to speak at this conference for just
such a purpose. I do not know very much more about computer
technology than the average person -- which isn't very much. I have
little understanding of what excites a computer programmer or
scientist, and in examining the descriptions of the presentations at
this conference, I found each one more mysterious than the next. So,
I clearly qualify as an outsider.

But I think that what you want here is not merely an outsider but an
outsider who has a point of view that might be useful to the insiders.
And that is why I accepted the invitation to speak. I believe I know
something about what technologies do to culture, and I know even more
about what technologies undo in a culture. In fact, I might say, at
the start, that what a technology undoes is a subject that computer
experts apparently know very little about. I have heard many experts
in computer technology speak about the advantages that computers will
bring. With one exception - namely, Joseph Weizenbaum - I have never
heard anyone speak seriously and comprehensively about the
disadvantages of computer technology, which strikes me as odd, and
makes me wonder if the profession is hiding something important. That
is to say, what seems to be lacking among computer experts is a sense
of technological modesty.

After all, anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that
technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth
and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new
technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it
destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.

The invention of the printing press is an excellent example. Printing
fostered the modern idea of individuality but it destroyed the
medieval sense of community and social integration. Printing created
prose but made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of expression.
Printing made modern science possible but transformed religious
sensibility into an exercise in superstition. Printing assisted in
the growth of the nation-state but, in so doing, made patriotism into
a sordid if not a murderous emotion.

Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor
some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for
example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by
television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as
balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological
change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.

In the case of computer technology, there can be no disputing that the
computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like
military establishments or airline companies or banks or tax
collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now
indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural
sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage
to the masses of people? To steel workers, vegetable store owners,
teachers, automobile mechanics, musicians, bakers, brick layers,
dentists and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now
intrudes? These people have had their private matters made more
accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and
controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are
increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more
often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk
mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political
organizations. The schools teach their children to operate
computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable
to children. In a word, almost nothing happens to the losers that they
need, which is why they are losers.

It is to be expected that the winners - for example, most of the
speakers at this conference - will encourage the losers to be
enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners,
and so they sometimes tell the losers that with personal computers the
average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track
of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists. They also tell them
that they can vote at home, shop at home, get all the information they
wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary. They tell
them that their lives will be conducted more efficiently, discreetly
neglecting to say from whose point of view or what might be the costs
of such efficiency.

Should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the
wondrous feats of computers, many of which have only marginal
relevance to the quality of the losers' lives but which are
nonetheless impressive. Eventually, the losers succumb, in part
because they believe that the specialized knowledge of the masters of
a computer technology is a form of wisdom. The masters, of course,
come to believe this as well. The result is that certain questions do
not arise, such as, to whom will the computer give greater power and
freedom, and whose power and freedom will be reduced?

Now, I have perhaps made all of this sound like a wellplanned
conspiracy, as if the winners know all too well what is being won and
what lost. But this is not quite how it happens, for the winners do
not always know what they are doing, and where it will all lead. The
Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock in the 12th and
13th centuries believed that such a clock would provide a precise
regularity to the seven periods of devotion they were required to
observe during the course of the day. As a matter of fact, it did.
But what the monks did not realize is that the clock is not merely a
means of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and
controlling the actions of men. And so, by the middle of the 14th
century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and
brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and
the merchant. The mechanical clock made possible the idea of regular
production, regular working hours, and a standardized product.
Without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. And
so, here is a great paradox: the clock was invented by men who wanted
to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the
technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to
the accumulat- ion of money. Technology always has unforeseen
consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or
what will win, and who or what will lose.

I might add, by way of another historical example, that Johann
Gutenberg was by all accounts a devoted Christian who would have been
horrified to hear Martin Luther, the accursed heretic, declare that
printing is "God's highest act of grace, whereby the business of the
Gospel is driven forward." Gutenberg thought his invention would
advance the cause of the Holy Roman See, whereas in fact, it turned
out to bring a revolution which destroyed the monopoly of the Church.

We may well ask ourselves, then, is there something that the masters
of computer technology think they are doing for us which they and we
may have reason to regret? I believe there is, and it is suggested by
the title of my talk, "Informing Ourselves to Death". In the time
remaining, I will try to explain what is dangerous about the computer,
and why. And I trust you will be open enough to consider what I have
to say. Now, I think I can begin to get at this by telling you of a
small experiment I have been conducting, on and off, for the past
several years. There are some people who describe the experiment as an
exercise in deceit and exploitation but I will rely on your sense of
humor to pull me through.

Here's how it works: It is best done in the morning when I see a
colleague who appears not to be in possession of a copy of {The New
York Times}. "Did you read The Times this morning?," I ask. If the
colleague says yes, there is no experiment that day. But if the answer
is no, the experiment can proceed. "You ought to look at Page 23," I
say. "There's a fascinating article about a study done at Harvard
University." "Really? What's it about?" is the usual reply. My
choices at this point are limited only by my imagination. But I might
say something like this: "Well, they did this study to find out what
foods are best to eat for losing weight, and it turns out that a
normal diet supplemented by chocolate eclairs, eaten six times a day,
is the best approach. It seems that there's some special nutrient in
the eclairs - encomial dioxin - that actually uses up calories at an
incredible rate."

Another possibility, which I like to use with colleagues who are known
to be health conscious is this one: "I think you'll want to know about
this," I say. "The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart
have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence.
They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and
found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a
corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don't know exactly
why but there it is."

I'm sure, by now, you understand what my role is in the experiment: to
report something that is quite ridiculous - one might say, beyond
belief. Let me tell you, then, some of my results: Unless this is the
second or third time I've tried this on the same person, most people
will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Some-
times they say: "Really? Is that possible?" Sometimes they do a
double-take, and reply, "Where'd you say that study was done?" And
sometimes they say, "You know, I've heard something like that."

Now, there are several conclusions that might be drawn from these
results, one of which was expressed by H. L. Mencken fifty years ago
when he said, there is no idea so stupid that you can't find a
professor who will believe it. This is more of an accusation than an
explanation but in any case I have tried this experiment on non-
professors and get roughly the same results. Another possible con-
clusion is one expressed by George Orwell - also about 50 years ago -
when he remarked that the average person today is about as naive as
was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people
believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we
believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.

But I think there is still another and more important conclusion to be
drawn, related to Orwell's point but rather off at a right angle to
it. I am referring to the fact that the world in which we live is very
nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact -
whether actual or imagined - that will surprise us for very long,
since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world
which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We
believe because there is no reason not to believe. No social,
political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason. We
live in a world that, for the most part, makes no sense to us. Not
even technical sense. I don't mean to try my experiment on this
audience, especially after having told you about it, but if I informed
you that the seats you are presently occupying were actually made by a
special process which uses the skin of a Bismark herring, on what
grounds would you dispute me? For all you know - indeed, for all I
know - the skin of a Bismark herring could have made the seats on
which you sit. And if I could get an industrial chemist to confirm
this fact by describing some incomprehensible process by which it was
done, you would probably tell someone tomorrow that you spent the
evening sitting on a Bismark herring.

Perhaps I can get a bit closer to the point I wish to make with an
analogy: If you opened a brand-new deck of cards, and started turning
the cards over, one by one, you would have a pretty good idea of what
their order is. After you had gone from the ace of spades through the
nine of spades, you would expect a ten of spades to come up next. And
if a three of diamonds showed up instead, you would be surprised and
wonder what kind of deck of cards this is. But if I gave you a deck
that had been shuffled twenty times, and then asked you to turn the
cards over, you would not expect any card in particular - a three of
diamonds would be just as likely as a ten of spades. Having no basis
for assuming a given order, you would have no reason to react with
disbelief or even surprise to whatever card turns up.

The point is that, in a world without spiritual or intellectual order,
nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore,
nothing comes as a particular surprise.

In fact, George Orwell was more than a little unfair to the average
person in the Middle Ages. The belief system of the Middle Ages was
rather like my brand-new deck of cards. There existed an ordered,
comprehensible world-view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge
and goodness come from God. What the priests had to say about the
world was derived from the logic of their theology. There was nothing
arbitrary about the things people were asked to believe, including the
fact that the world itself was created at 9 AM on October 23 in the
year 4004 B. C. That could be explained, and was, quite lucidly, to
the satisfaction of anyone. So could the fact that 10,000 angels could
dance on the head of a pin. It made quite good sense, if you believed
that the Bible is the revealed word of God and that the universe is
populated with angels. The medieval world was, to be sure, mysterious
and filled with wonder, but it was not without a sense of order.
Ordinary men and women might not clearly grasp how the harsh realities
of their lives fit into the grand and benevolent design, but they had
no doubt that there was such a design, and their priests were well
able, by deduction from a handful of principles, to make it, if not
rational, at least coherent.

The situation we are presently in is much different. And I should say,
sadder and more confusing and certainly more mysterious. It is rather
like the shuffled deck of cards I referred to. There is no consistent,
integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on
which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore, in a sense, we are
more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we
can be made to believe almost anything. The skin of a Bismark herring
makes about as much sense as a vinyl alloy or encomial dioxin.

Now, in a way, none of this is our fault. If I may turn the wisdom of
Cassius on its head: the fault is not in ourselves but almost
literally in the stars. When Galileo turned his telescope toward the
heavens, and allowed Kepler to look as well, they found no enchantment
or authoriza- tion in the stars, only geometric patterns and
equations. God, it seemed, was less of a moral philosopher than a
master mathematician. This discovery helped to give impetus to the
development of physics but did nothing but harm to theology. Before
Galileo and Kepler, it was possible to believe that the Earth was the
stable center of the universe, and that God took a special interest
in our affairs. Afterward, the Earth became a lonely wanderer in an
obscure galaxy in a hidden corner of the universe, and we were left to
wonder if God had any interest in us at all. The ordered,
comprehensible world of the Middle Ages began to unravel because
people no longer saw in the stars the face of a friend.

And something else, which once was our friend, turned against us, as
well. I refer to information. There was a time when information was a
resource that helped human beings to solve specific and urgent
problems of their environment. It is true enough that in the Middle
Ages, there was a scarcity of information but its very scarcity made
it both important and usable. This began to change, as everyone knows,
in the late 15th century when a goldsmith named Gutenberg, from Mainz,
converted an old wine press into a printing machine, and in so
doing, created what we now call an information explosion. Forty years
after the invention of the press, there were printing machines in 110
cities in six different countries; 50 years after, more than eight
million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with
information that had previously not been available to the average
person. Nothing could be more misleading than the idea that computer
technology introduced the age of information. The printing press
began that age, and we have not been free of it since.

But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge
of chaos. If I may take my own country as an example, here is what we
are faced with: In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520
newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting
tapes; 362 million tv sets; and over 400 million radios. There are
40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 world-wide) and
every day in America 41 million photographs are taken, and just for
the record, over 60 billion pieces of advertising junk mail come into
our mail boxes every year. Everything from telegraphy and photography
in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified
the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions
today that for the average person, information no longer has any
relation to the solution of problems.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Above are 1990 statistics. 15 years
ago. PAT]

The tie between information and action has been severed. Information
is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of
entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one's status. It
comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected
from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in
information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.

And there are two reasons we do not know what to do with it. First, as
I have said, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and
our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no
longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we
are going, or why. That is, we don't know what information is
relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives. Second, we
have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing
machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As
a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down;
our information immune system is inoperable. We don't know how to
filter it out; we don't know how to reduce it; we don't know to use
it. We suffer from a kind of cultural AIDS.

Now, into this situation comes the computer. The computer, as we know,
has a quality of universality, not only because its uses are almost
infinitely various but also because computers are commonly integrated
into the structure of other machines. Therefore it would be fatuous of
me to warn against every conceivable use of a computer. But there is
no denying that the most prominent uses of computers have to do with
information. When people talk about "information sciences," they are
talking about computers - how to store information, how to retrieve
information, how to organize information. The computer is an answer
to the questions, how can I get more information, faster, and in a more
usable form? These would appear to be reasonable questions. But now I
should like to put some other questions to you that seem to me more
reasonable. Did Iraq invade Kuwait because of a lack of information?
If a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the U. S., will it
happen because of a lack of information? If children die of starvation
in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism
in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals
roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of

Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse
are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen
because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring
shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information?
If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen
because of a lack of information?

I believe you will have to concede that what ails us, what causes us the
most misery and pain - at both cultural and personal levels - has nothing
to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers. The
computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental quest-
ions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane.
The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot
tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of
understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency
eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer
is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we
most needed to confront - spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves,
usable conceptions of the past and future. Does one blame the computer
for this? Of course not. It is, after all, only a machine. But it is
presented to us, with trumpets blaring, as at this conference, as a
technological messiah.

Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better,
religion better, politics better, our minds better - best of all,
ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or
the ignorant or the foolish could believe it. I said a moment ago
that computers are not to blame for this. And that is true, at least
in the sense that we do not blame an elephant for its huge appetite or
a stone for being hard or a cloud for hiding the sun. That is their
nature, and we expect nothing different from them. But the computer
has a nature, as well. True, it is only a machine but a machine
designed to manipulate and generate information. That is what
computers do, and therefore they have an agenda and an unmistakable

The message is that through more and more information, more conveniently
packaged, more swiftly delivered, we will find solutions to our
problems. And so all the brilliant young men and women, believing
this, create ingenious things for the computer to do, hoping that in
this way, we will become wiser and more decent and more noble. And
who can blame them? By becoming masters of this wondrous technology,
they will acquire prestige and power and some will even become famous.
In a world populated by people who believe that through more and more
information, paradise is attainable, the computer scientist is king.
But I maintain that all of this is a monumental and dangerous waste of
human talent and energy. Imagine what might be accomplished if this
talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts,
to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could
learn from such people - perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and
homelessness and mental illness and anger.

As things stand now, the geniuses of computer technology will give us
Star Wars, and tell us that is the answer to nuclear war. They will
give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to
self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communicat-
ion, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will
give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual
poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer,
the information junkie, and the technological idiot.

Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but
improved means to an unimproved end." Here is what Goethe told us:
"One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem,
see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable
words." And here is what Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not
worth living." And here is what the prophet Micah told us: "What does
the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to
walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you - if I had the time
(although you all know it well enough) - what Confucius, Isaiah,
Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is
all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma
is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking
ourselves in technological glory.

Even the humblest cartoon character knows this, and I shall close by
quoting the wise old possum named Pogo, created by the cartoonist,
Walt Kelley. I commend his words to all the technological utopians
and messiahs present. "We have met the enemy," Pogo said, "and he is


[TELECOM Digest Editor's 1994 Note: My sincere thanks to Bill for passing
along this article to us. It certainly does give us something to
meditate upon as we travel down the 'information superhighway' so
highly touted by the present occupant of the White House and his
staff. PAT]

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Did you notice Postner's 1990 remarks
about "if a hideous war should ensue between Iraq and the USA"?
Indeed, that very war is going on now. What did (or does) the
'computer' have to do with all this? And why have we gotten to the
point that we still, albiet feebly, try to protect so much information
in the 'real world' from our children with web site blocking? I hope
you enjoyed re-reading this file from a decade ago. PAT]

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