Learning the news: Postman is still ringing

The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem, writes Roger Plothow.

More than a generation before the ubiquity of the Internet and all it has wrought, Neil Postman wrote his seminal work, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

To Neil Postman, the book’s title was no metaphor. He meant it quite literally.

Postman borrowed the term “media ecology” from his mentor Marshall McLuhan, defining the term as the study of “how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media impedes or facilitates our chances of survival.” Note how Postman defines the stakes — he considered media literacy a matter of our survival. And to him, television was the nightmarish monster.

Today’s media ecology, under Postman’s theory, is technology run amok, whose users can operate its platforms but are unable to perceive its dangers. In Postman’s terms, the Internet has become the metaphor; it is the media ecology, leaving other media increasingly irrelevant. Postman would likely conclude that perhaps most urgent is the fact that, unlike television or print mass media, the Internet is both a mass and interpersonal medium with illusory boundaries and powers seemingly beyond the grasp of many users to control or even understand.

Russian troll factories are widely active on Facebook with no solution obviously within reach. Eastern Europeans teenagers manufacture fictions about our presidential election for serious money. Our president warns Puerto Ricans weeks or months from having power to ignore fake news. Liberals post increasingly outlandish claims about the president on every social media platform.

The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem. The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of “alternative facts,” and altered or invented “photographs,” and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining.

It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.

When it comes to solutions, Postman wasn’t encouraging. Awareness and education provide the best hope, but he considered these something of a desperate Hail Mary pass as time runs out at midfield, to borrow a football analogy. To Postman, we were already mired in a Huxleyan dystopic world in 1985, and it is likely he would view today’s culture, with the Internet having replaced television as the medium and metaphor of greatest importance, with grave concern. In 1995 he wondered if the Internet, instead of bringing people together, would only exacerbate “tribalism.” Postman, it seems, was using the word “tribalism” to describe what we now call “information bubbles.”

Postman died in 2003, and no one of his skill and foresight has filled his shoes. Those who thought he was right in 1985 await his replacement with increasing anxiety.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.