BOB GARFIELD: We are back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Media scholar and social critic Neil Postman died this week of lung cancer at a hospital near his home in Flushing, New York. In his many articles, books and lectures, Postman was passionate about the impact of television on individuals and society as a whole. He urged people to be skeptical of the rush towards new communications technologies and new technologies in general. OTM's Paul Ingles presents some of the enduring questions raised by Neil Postman.
PAUL INGLES: The principal legacy of the telegraph, wrote Neil Postman in his 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," was that it generated an abundance of irrelevant information. It could send news across the nation that we could talk about having heard, but very little of the news it spread could lead to any meaningful action. Postman largely felt the same way about television which presented, he wrote, "a peek-a-boo world where now this event, now that pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense, a world that does not ask us, indeed does not permit us to do anything...but like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining." Postman was fond of challenging lecture audiences to critically ask, what problem, exactly, does a new technology solve? Here he is at a media conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1998, applying the question to a debate over whether or not the U.S. government should subsidize the manufacture of a supersonic transcontinental jet.
NEIL POSTMAN: And so the question was asked: What is the problem to which the supersonic jet is the solution? The answer, it turned out, was that it takes six hours to go from New York to London in a 747. With a supersonic jet, it can be done in three. Now most Americans, I'm happy to say, did not think that that was a sufficiently serious problem to warrant such a heavy investment. Besides, some Americans asked, what would we do with the three hours we saved? [LAUGHTER] And their answer was: We probably would watch television. [BIG LAUGHTER] And so the suggestion was made that we put television sets on the 747s, [BIGGER LAUGHTER] and thereby save billions of dollars. After one has answered the question, what is the problem to which a particular technology is the solution, one must ask, "whose problem is it?" In the case of the SST, the problem of getting to London faster than 747s could do it was largely a problem for movie stars, rock musicians and corporate executives -- hardly a problem that most Americans would regard as worth solving, if it would cost them a lot of money. But this question, whose problem is it, needs to be applied to any technology. Most technologies do solve some problem, but the problem may not be everybody's problem or even most people's problem. We need to be very careful in determining who will benefit from a technology and who will pay for it. They are not always the same people.
PAUL INGLES: Neil Postman often ran against the grain that suggests that new technologies always lead to progress. He knew some saw him as a luddite -- fearful of all new technologies. But he said he was really only encouraging caution and reflection around our techno-lust. He once wondered, for example, why New York schools were rushing to wire all the classrooms for the internet when they hadn't enough chairs and desks to accommodate all the students. For On the Media, I'm Paul Ingles.