By Rain Ji ’19
Andrew Postman, a writer who has been published in major publications and written a few books of his own, visited and spoke at The Gunnery on September 27, 2018. His speech revolved around the concept of how technology is influencing our lives.
Postman began his speech with a story about his connection with The Gunnery when he was a teenager. When he was at an anthropology camp in Washington Depot, Conn., he accidentally discovered a Clovis point, which helped anthropologists prove that Paleo-Indians inhabited the area 10,000 years ago. Moreover, because of his discovery, the Shepaug River was able to be preserved. “We saved the river,” he said.
Postman connected this cultural anecdote with the main topic of his speech: technology in our ever-changing world. Postman’s late father, Neil Postman, wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Postman used that book to make the point that our current society is falling into one that’s similar to the one Aldous Huxley wrote into his 1931 novel Brave New World. In Huxley’s fictional society, people take drug that makes them happy and truth drowns in irrelevance. “Why has America in some ways become a trivial culture?” Postman asked.
He approached this question by first looking at how the way we get our information has changed. The first humans orally passed down their history and wisdom, but eventually technology evolved, and when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, everything changed. This transformational invention led to a new written culture that created a more efficient way to spread knowledge.
Decades ago, we shifted from this once new written culture to a visual culture that includes “toxic” photography and moving pictures. People became only interested in images that are intensely emotional, and these pictures are neither true nor false because they simply exist to grab people’s attention. Postman also pointed out that, often, “content lacks context,” because we are not sure how to judge the image. Technology made it possible for us as a society to move from one type of content to another with lightning speed. We only have to pay attention to what we find amusing, an idea that would not exist without technology, because this is not something that can be done during oral stories or conversations with actual people. Postman asked, “What do we judge an image based on?”
Additionally, the amount of time that American adults spend on technology is increasing. And with the prevalence of memes and hot takes, Postman worried that we are no longer capable of having important conversations, only interested in what amuses us. So, how should we, as consumers, “take arms against the sea of amusement?”
Postman also alluded to David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” allegory, warning us that we should pay attention to what we surround ourselves with. He mentioned that his friend conducts “E-Media Fast” experiments, and many students claim that such experiments are life-changing. He emphasized that the proper use of technology should consider time, place and location. He juxtaposed a child memory with life in 2018: he and his family used to pay the toll for the car behind them as a kind gesture to receive smiles from strangers, but now that we have EZ-pass, this would be impossible.
Postman is not against technology, but he wanted to think about the role it plays in our lives. He asked if we think we are the same person on social media, and whether we are intentional with technology. Additionally, Postman thinks parents and teachers should help children understand how to properly use technology, how to check sources and how to be skeptical. As consumers, we should seek information, “do [our] own hunting,” and never expect the media to do it for us, making sure to be wary of fake news and how publications, no matter how journalistically ethical, need to generate revenue.
In the end, Postman admitted that he is unsure about how much our society will change in the future. But he left us with one final request: keep in mind what makes us happy and what it means to be human.