VISIONS OF CYBERSPACE
JULY 25, 1995
Author and media scholar Neil Postman, head of the Culture and Communications at New York University, encourages caution when entering cyberspace. His book, Technopoly, the Surrender of Culture to Technology, puts the computer in historical perspective.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Neil Postman, thank you for joining us. How do you define cyberspace?
NEIL POSTMAN: Cyberspace is a metaphorical idea which is supposed to be the space where your consciousness is located when you're using computer technology on the Internet, for example, and I'm not entirely sure it's such a useful term, but I think that's what most people mean by it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How does that strike you, I mean, that your consciousness is located somewhere other than in your body?
NEIL POSTMAN: Well, the most interesting thing about the term for me is that it made me begin to think about where one's consciousness is when interacting with other kinds of media, for example, even when you're reading, where, where are you, what is the space in which your consciousness is located, and when you're watching television, where, where are you, who are you, because people say with the Internet, for example, it's a little different in that you're always interacting or most of the time with another person. And when you're in cyberspace, I suppose you can be anyone you want, and I think as this program indicates, it's worth, it's worth talking about because this is a new idea and something very different from face-to-face co-presence with another human being.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think this is a good thing, or a bad thing, or you haven't decided?
NEIL POSTMAN: Well, no, I've mostly--(laughing)--I've mostly decided that new technology of this kind or any other kind is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something important but it also takes away something that's important. That's been true of the alphabet and the printing press and telegraphy right up through the computer. For instance, when I hear people talk about the information superhighway, it will become possible to shop at home and bank at home and get your texts at home and get entertainment at home and so on, I often wonder if this doesn't signify the end of any meaningful community life. I mean, when two human beings get together, they're co-present, there is built into it a certain responsibility we have for each other, and when people are co-present in family relationships and other relationships, that responsibility is there. You can't just turn off a person. On the Internet, you can. And I wonder if this doesn't diminish that built-in, human sense of responsibility we have for each other. Then also one wonders about social skills; that after all, talking to someone on the Internet is a different proposition from being in the same room with someone--not in terms of responsibility but just in terms of revealing who you are and discovering who the other person is. As a matter of fact, I'm one of the few people not only that you're likely to interview but maybe ever meet who is opposed to the use of personal computers in school because school, it seems to me, has always largely been about how to learn as part of a group. School has never really been about individualized learning but about how to be socialized as a citizen and as a human being, so that we, we have important rules in school, always emphasizing the fact that one is part of a group. And I worry about the personal computer because it seems, once again to emphasize individualized learning, individualized activity.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What images come to your mind when you, when you think about what our lives will be like in cyberspace?
NEIL POSTMAN: Well, the, the worst images are of people who are overloaded with information which they don't know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant, people who become information junkies.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you mean? How do you mean that?
NEIL POSTMAN: Well, the problem in the 19th century with information was that we lived in a culture of information scarcity and so humanity addressed that problem beginning with photography and telegraphy and the--in the 1840s. We tried to solve the problem of overcoming the limitations of space, time, and form. And for about a hundred years, we worked on this problem, and we solved it in a spectacular way. And now, by solving that problem, we created a new problem, that people have never experienced before, information glut, information meaninglessness, information incoherence. I mean, if there are children starving in Somalia or any other place, it's not because of insufficient information. And if crime is rampant in the streets in New York and Detroit and Chicago or wherever, it's not because of insufficient information. And if people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and their sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information. Now, along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that, ah, here we can do it; if only we can have more access to more information faster and in more diverse forms at long last, we'll be able to solve these problems. And I don't think it has anything to do with it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you believe that this--that the fact that people are more connected globally will lead to a greater degree of homogenization of the global society?
NEIL POSTMAN: Here's the puzzle about that, Charlayne. When everyone was--when McLuhan talked about the world becoming a global village and, and when people ask, as you did, about how connections can be made, everyone seemed to think that the world would become in, in some good sense more homogenous. But we seem to be experiencing the opposite. I mean, all over the world, we see a kind of reversion to tribalism. People are going back to their tribal roots in order to find a sense of identity. I mean, we see it in Russia, in Yugoslavia, in Canada, in the United States, I mean, in our own country. Why is that every group now not only is more aware of its own grievances but seems to want its own education? You know, we want an Afro-centric curriculum and a Korean-centric curriculum, and a Greek-centered curriculum. What is it about all this globalization of communication that is making people return to more--to smaller units of identity? It's a puzzlement.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what do you think the people, society should be doing to try and anticipate these negatives and be able to do something about them?
NEIL POSTMAN: I think they should--everyone should be sensitive to certain questions. For example, when a new--confronted with a new technology, whether it's a cellular phone or high definition television or cyberspace or Internet, the question--one question should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? And the second question would be: Whose problem is it actually? And the third question would be: If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology? About six months ago, I bought a new Honda Accord, and the salesman told me that it had cruise control. And I asked him, "What is the problem to which cruise control is the solution?" By the way, there's an extra charge for cruise control. And he said no one had ever asked him that before but then he said, "Well, it's the problem of keeping your foot on the gas." And I said, "Well, I've been driving for 35 years. I've never found that to be a problem." I mean, am I using this technology, or is it using me, because in a technological culture, it is very easy to be swept up in the enthusiasm for technology, and of course, all the technophiles around, all the people who adore technology and are promoting it everywhere you turn.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Neil Postman, thank you for all of your cautions.
NEIL POSTMAN: Thank you.