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In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, Neil Postman weaves an interesting tale on the development of a new "conversation" that Americans should commence. His book was an enjoyable read, and it re-ignites debate over policy questions and knowledge claims in the process of decision making. However, in formulating his arguments, he ran afoul, as so many do, in misconstruing the meaning of social construction and the manner in which society constructs knowledge. At the same time, Postman correctly articulates 'a crisis in narrative' (p.113). His story is best understood in the context of a manifesto that sees current narratives as inadequate for the future development of a healthy society. He sees a loss of meaning in our stories and reminds us that the 18th century is a social location that provides a foundation from which to launch a new conversation in order to restore a more meaningful social life. His manifesto does not seem to be interested in contemplation or conversation as he implies. Instead, I will argue that Postman is looking for efficiency and efficacy, and advocating his perspective from an ethnocentric foundation. I will attempt to provide the notion that there are multiple stories to be told, and that retelling one can be another form of advocating the status quo. In this review, I will focus on Postman's arguments for healthy skepticism, some of his contradictions, the notion of individualism and egoism, and the misconstruction of postmodern thought.
Postman articulates the need for critical thinking and skepticism. Robert K. Merton was instrumental in bringing out this point earlier in the century. However, Merton had other problems including circular arguments and a refusal to question scientists as knowing best. Regardless, Postman isn't the first to talk about skepticism. This issue is rather, what type of skepticism? Does Postman advocate that future scientists be skeptical? Or, by chance, would he prefer the general public be better 'skepticizers' over the scientific enterprise? The latter is quite important. However, if Neil Postman means the former, he has been misled into believing that science can be separated from society. In this book, he put the need for critical thinking and skepticism in the context of education, and he assumes that the teachers in pre-college schools do not have the abilities to correctly teach science in schools, I posit that his policy suggestion for teaching critical thinking and skepticism are impossible at worst, and improbable at best. This is another reason I argue that his work is a manifesto with little chance of making it to the policy-making stages. In other words, it is not a "real problem."
By asking serious questions about the education, information, childhood, narratives, and democracy, Postman is advocating the use of already told stories from the 18th century to help guide Americans through the 21st century. He does have some compelling arguments. For instance, he notes that the "cheerleaders" of technology advancement are not concerned with the slower-paced knowledge acquisition of the printed word. I agree with his characterization of the digit-heads. However, at the same time, there are contradictions in his argument. Do I want to revert to a typewriter? Do I want to search the library racks several times a week on a research project, when I can review current literature on-line, in the comfort of my home office? These are important questions. At the same time, they do not address the central theme of the present book, which carries the assumption that we don't need a narrative such as postmodernism to help solve our "problems." Instead, going back to the 18th century will suffice. "Right" and "Wrong" may become essential questions. However, they are meaningless unless we ask for whom something is "right" or "wrong"?
I also think that Postman missed a critical aspect of his own study. He uses Tocqueville to illuminate individualism and egoism as divergent cultural systems that epitomize the "right" and "wrong" directions, respectively, that our culture has taken. I see Postman's characterization here as lacking any sociological context. He totally misses what Emile Durkheim (1901) claimed was essential -- a social fact! For instance, couldn't anomie be more important than both individualism and egoism? I would argue that normlessness plays a more central role in the lack of meaning, if this lack of meaning exists in society at all. To Postman, "good science" appears to be a natural and distinct entity that is attainable by coordinating the efforts of technology, language, information, narratives, children, democracy, and education. Although, he admits this is a daunting task, he assumes that social constructivist perspectives cannot help us get there. However, it is exactly social constructivism that illuminates the language, information, narratives, and education that are so integrally connected to what science produces -- knowledge claims. In trying to understand knowledge claims, history is important.
I agree with Postman that history is very important. However, deriving a narrative out of a couple of Western European men may not be the answer. Why must there be only ONE narrative? In leaning toward the postmodern, and more specifically, interpretavist perspective (Stone, 1997; Yanow, 1996; Donna Haraway, 1997, 1991), I suggest that a multiplicity of disciplines and perspectives be utilized in crafting multiple stories. Why would one narrative be better than two? It occurs to me that Postman is looking for efficiency and efficacy, not contemplation and conversation as he attempts to imply. For instance, he notes that:
"But one worries, nonetheless, that a generation of young people may become entangled in an academic fashion that will increase their difficulties in solving real problems -- indeed, in facing them" (p.80).
Before he suggested this notion, Postman creatively crafted 6 questions (p.42-53). The second question is "Whose problem is it?" (p.45), and the third is "Which people and…institutions might be" injured?(p.45) By asking these questions, doesn't Postman realize that race, class, and gender matter? One's social location is an important predictor in telling us what a problem is. When one has privilege (and, by the way science is a privileged enterprise as we enter the new millennium!), one fails to see much of the obvious. So, is it "bad" for young people to get "entangled" in discourse that doesn't necessarily apply to "real problems"? I ask, whose problem is it? I also find it interesting the Postman joins the legions of anti-postmodernists by using the overused case of Alan Sokal (p.80). Does Postman realize that Sokal submitted this "spoof" to a non-refereed journal? Again, the evidence provided by Postman (Sokal, 1996, 1996) is meager at best. At worst, it illustrates Postman's misunderstanding of social constructivists. Social constructivists do not believe that everything is constructed. They realize that material entities are real. However, when human agency is coupled to material agency the "dance of agency" (Pickering, 1995) is illuminated, and this is essentially a social construction.
Postman reminds us that we can find narratives "…in the older ones we have already been telling " (p.113). But, then he contradicts himself by telling us that "…we require…a retelling of our older tales to encompass many truths and to let us grow with change" (p.115). By refuting postmodern thought in the beginning of the book, Postman has constructed his own dilemma. In order to see the multiplicity involved in technology, knowledge, culture, and "truth," one must look toward a perspective that reflects a diversity of ideas. I see postmodern thought as a more encompassing perspective for exactly the type of understanding of "many truths" Postman is trying to advocate. He neglects the diversity of postmodern thought. For instance, the interpretative approach used in policy analysis studies (Yanow, 1996) illuminates the cultural artifacts that produce myths and knowledge claims and sorts out the ambiguous nature of policy decisions. It is obvious to me that Postman hasn't picked up this sort of analysis. More importantly, studies that have illustrated the "culture" of science (Shapin, 1994) help illuminate how closely science and society are integrated. Postman argues that some of the sciences (Medicine over witchcraft, etc.) "…are privileged because they are 'truer'" (p.76). If he were to take his own suggestion and read Shapin, he may come to a more interesting conclusion. The conclusion would be maybe culture shapes the way we form "truth!"
Finally, for the purpose of reminding my audience that I do know when the alphabet was invented (something that Postman challenges me on -- p.171), I ask him "what do you mean?" Should we use one story to tell the multiplicity of narratives about the alphabet? Or, should we use the story that is technically the first documented writing system of Chinese civilization -- around c.1523-c.1027 B.C.? Perhaps he may have been interested in the "sequoyah" alphabet, used by the Cherokee, created in the mid-1700s? Regardless, an ethnocentric (in this case Roman-centric) factoid about the invention of the alphabet does little to help create a conversation about "our new media and our old democracy" (p.154). Neil Postman's book helps create a conversation, but the conversation is one sided and is not a conversation that will "bridge" anything. Having said this, his book is well written, and does provide the semi-knowledgeable reader of science and technology with a foundation to begin conversation.
REFERENCESDurkheim, Emile. (1901). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: The Free Press (1951)
Haraway, D. J. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan© Meets_Oncomouse™. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Postman, N. (1999). Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve our Future. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Shapin, S. (1994). A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago, IL.: The University of Chicago Press.
Sokal, A. (1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text, 14, 217-252.
Sokal, A. (1996). "A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca, May/June, 62-64.
Stone, D. (1997). Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.
Yanow, D. (1996). How Does A Policy Mean? Interpreting Policy and Organizational Actions. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
--John D. Wilkins