The Absurdities of Neil Postman

I have never understood the appeal of Neil Postman — his articles and books were full of logical fallacies and factual errors. For a man who complained of the affect of mass media on public discourse, his books were close-minded gibberish that amounted to little more than special pleading that the world be ordered as Neil Postman would have it. Anyway, this is a few words I had to write for a class in response to Postman’s 2001 essay Deus Machina:

I understand the point of having people read Postman, but I have to dissent on the claim that Postman was not an intellectual lightweight. There are plenty of well thought out criticisms of the way technology is used and implemented, but Postman’s is fundamentally flawed due to not only to his Luddite-like misunderstanding of technology but also due to his outright fabulism.

This is evident here in his fairy tale about 16th century Japan’s abandonment of guns. In Postman’s retelling, the Japanese people came together, sang a few bars of Kumbaya, and tossed aside their weapons. They thus hoisted off the shackles of the oppressive technology that would otherwise have been imposed on them.

In reality, the gun ban was imposed on the Japanese people by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Shogunate was a feudalistic military dictatorship, and the ban on guns was enforced by a feudalistic-like system in which a small number of land owners exerted power over peasants comparable today to something you might see in North Korea or, in a previous era, in the Soviet Union. The vast majority of subjects in Japan were barred from owning any weapon, gun, sword or otherwise.

Postman absurdly writes,

In a short time, all the guns were gone. There were still wars, of course, for even in a fable the demons that make men war on each other cannot be wished away. But for two hundred years, the sweet song of the nightingale was never drowned by the retort of the rifle or the roar of the cannon. And the children slept peacefully, as they had done many years before.

Perhaps Postman skipped over the Shimabara Rebellion, when a peasant uprising threatened the Shogunate dictatorship. The rebels held out against a vastly superior Shogunate force through the use of cannons. Alas, the rebels ran out of food and gunpowder and were overwhelmed by the Shogunate forces. Presumably Postman’s peacefully sleeping children achieved that slumbering state sometime after the Shogunate forces beheaded an estimated 37,000 people for their part in the rebellion.

Much as the Soviet Union closely controlled access to photocopiers, and North Korea today manufactures radios that only tune in official radio stations, so the Tokugawa Shogunate used its rejection of new technologies as a method of furthering its political and military aims (and, it was largely successful, if one considers domination of Japan by a feudalistic military dictatorship for a few centuries to have been a good thing).

What Postman and other neo-luddite critiques of technology fail to see is that the history of humanity, and more specifically human progress, is inextricably linked with its use of technology. Certainly, Postman is correct that the clock can be turned back. Satellite photographs of North Korea at night show a vast region largely unblemished by the anything as distasteful as an electric light. But barring that sort of regime (which presumably Postman would not assent to), Postman’s technological atheism will fail because technology is not some appeal to a supernatural force, but rather a reflection and a co-creation of what is fundamentally human.

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