Aside: This is my attempt to
test the viability of long stories
Postman strives to demonstrate this by comparing
the lives of Eurpoean peasants before Guttenberg
and the printing press to life afterwards.
His claim is that the Guttenberg press made literacy
economically practical, and that literacy allows
societies to establish a social convention regarding childhood
because a literate society will be gradual in what
it teaches its young, using a progression of books
to introduce such things as sex to them. Before literacy,
a human being was a non-person until around age 7,
and equivalent to an adult afterwards. With literacy,
we can establish a progression by which a young person
is introduced to the Heavy Matters of life,
and do so in a matter that best suits our purposes.
Without literacy, we have a milestone at age 7, at which
a person becomes largely fluent in his native language,
and becomes acknowledged as a person, and a milestone at
puberty, which does not carry as much significance as
it otherwise could.
What is scary about his suggestion is his next
claim: the rise of non-textual media is bringing
about a non-literate age, and thus causing the
disappearance of childhood.
Interestingly enough, Postman goes for many pages
describing a European peasantry in which people
were a cross of child and adult, and yet pays no attention
to a counterexample society that was living alongside
the peasants the whole time: the Jews.
Jews held on to literacy at the time even though it was
not at all practical. They maintained a rite of passage
at age 13 as well as one at age 7 (the introduction of
children to literacy is heavily ritualized among
many Orthodox Jews). Postman points out that without
the printing press, the Latin alphabet was slowly mutating
throughout Europe. For reasons of sheer obssession,
Jewish writing has stayed uniform the entire time,
sticking to the Ashuri script and the Tiberias
system of diacritical marks. I'm not sure if a look
at the Medieval Jewish population reinforces Postman's
point or not (I still have some reading to do on that point),
But enough with that digression. Let's talk of a few conclusions.
By Postman's reasoning, television and movies are
considerably more of a threat to childhood than the Internet.
The use of textual media to introduce young'uns to various
aspects of life is an easy means of control over them,
even without censorship! First, as a defense of this method,
let me point out that you do not teach a 9 year old boy how
to drive and then tell him "don't do it until you're 16."
Now, as for the lack of censorship, whatever you don't
write about at the third-grade reading level, third
graders will not get to read. It really is that simple.
(Yes, there's the gifted children issue, but really,
how many gifted kids read "Henry and June" in third grade?)
Since the heaviness of the prose is almost all the discouragement
you need in order to have a measure of control of how
your children grow intellectually, you don't need to exercise
censorship unless you want to shelter your children
far more than is advisable. By the time a kid is ready
to experiment sexually, he or she had better know
Television and movies are a different beast altogether.
The movie rating system is a self-defeating joke,
and television itself cannot really discriminate by age.
The reason behind this is inherent in the medium itself,
rather than the result of any effort to make the medium
racier or more violent. The moving picture is a full
disclosure medium. The moving picture box ever more so,
because it is not hidden behind a ticket seller's booth.
While an author can (and does, sometimes unwillingly)
restrict access to the content he writes by the use
of a vocabulary that takes time to acquire, the
television screen does not. Television shows the same things
to one and all. And in order to get the ratings from
adult viewers, television networks have to broadcast
content that covers at this point the whole range of human
experience (anything remaining could be sent to Jerry Springer
for a checklist). So, this is the substance of Postman's
objections to television. When Postman published
"The Disappearance of Childhood", the Web had not yet gone
up, and so Postman's predictions need to be evaluated in
The Disappearance of Childhood displays itself
not only in children being treated as adults, but
as adults being treated as children, just as in
Medieval Europe. On the one hand, we have the recent fashion
of prepubescent girls to dress "just like Brittney."
On the other, we have colleges having to act in loco parentis
all throughout the United States, we have a civil litigation
system that step by step takes away personal responsibility,
we have parents who act like yobs in Little League games,
and I could come up with many more anecdotal observations.
Overall, Postman makes a grim set of predictions.
So now, one has to ask, how does the Web fit in?
It is far more textual than graphic, a far more cerebral
medium, since it requires an amount of interaction,
so the question does remain on where it fits.
Marshall McLuhan's adage, "the medium is the message",
is something to consider. It's not only television that
is constrained in what it can convey. Go to any American city,
and you will find the established town newspaper (New York Times,
Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe) and the established town
tabloid (Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Boston Herald).
"Tabloid" originally referred only to the page and yet,
tabloids are tabloids, in other words, disreputable.
This is because a folded newspaper is something you read
by a table, with coffee and danish. A tabloid, you, well,
Another issue that Postman goes into extensively is the
notion that the instantaneous, long distance nature of the
television medium. The telegraph, and the first newspapers to
make widespread use of it, were the medium that first provided
the amorphous 'they' in the idiom 'they say that'. 'They',
be they the telegraph or the idiot box, directly challenged
the authority of the parent in the upbringing of a child.
The Web also provides a 'they', but a very different 'they',
under a different dymamic.
So, the Web as a medium may develop attributes that are difficult
to work against. Luckily, the Web is not a medium. It is a
large collection of media. We have personal email, mailing lists,
Usenet, archived mailing lists, news sites, magazine sites,
web logs, genre sites, et cetera. All of the prevailing ones
(with the possible exception of WebTV) are a step toward
a more literate way to communicate. (We'll see if that holds.)
In the last chapter of The Disappearance of Childhood,
Postman expresses his concern that the computer will
be used by the laity merely as a game console,
leaving all other uses to the hands of a technical elite
(a valid concern in the late 80's, one must admit).
So, now let's say I had a kid (Cthulhu have mercy).
Would I take this to the logical conclusion and give
the kid Web access while limiting or disallowing
television? To a degree, I would. Communication
beyond browsing makes me twitchy, as do privacy issues.
And no child of mine gets root before he steals it.
But to summarize, the Internet stands to reverse
the nasty media-induced social trends Postman
frets about (not only in "The Disappearance of Childhood",
but also in "Amusing Ourselves to Death"), rather
than make them worse, the common fear of the
not-yet-clued-in public. Ironically, the worry over
net porn is just about the biggest red herring.
When I was in junior high I quickly learned exactly
which newstand owners could be bribed into selling
porn to a minor (and at only a 50% markup - such a deal..)
but porn consumption on my part did not go beyond initial
curiosity. Why should the net be different in that regard?
Well, since the net is a set of media, not a medium, that
remains to be seen. Will HTML prevail? Or will Flash
cartoons, streaming audio and video, and animations
turn the Web into a medium that is primarily non-textual?
Will there be continuing innovation in the way web sites are
organized, or will such things as the weblog and shopping cart
freeze it? Another issue is that the dynamic behind reading on the
Web is different from how we read the newspaper, our magazines,
or books. A web page is halfway between a television show and
a page of paper in its ability to hold on to our attention.
Our ability to click back, click out, or minimize the window,
makes it harder for the Web page writer to retain our attention
through longer pieces of text (are you still reading this?).
How to Write Inverted Pyramids.)
So an Internet-induced restoration of a primarily literate society
is something to hope for, but hardly guaranteed.
There are, however, some hopeful observations on the
Web's effect on society. The way television gets eyeballs
is titillation ("a look at incest, after these messages!").
The Web gets eyeballs through rejuxtaposition. Every Web
site or medium has to compete for eyeballs just like
a television station, but the way to do it is to
(for example) juxtapose
pictures of Brittney Spears with a guide to semiconductor
Hello Cthulhu, et cetera. The epitome of
rejuxtaposition as a way of getting attention is
to be found at
McSweeney's. That form of grabbing
and retaining attention looks far more conducive to the
idea of a drawn out introduction to the full range of human
experience. So, to summarize all this, y'all should
read Neal Postman and see what you think. I've
started reading a later title, 'Technopoly',
and may try posting about it after I'm done.