“Culture looks beyond machinery.”
—Matthew Arnold

A generation ago, the strongest voice raised against materialism, scientism, and the depredations of technology and mass communication was that of rhetorician and second generation agrarian Richard Weaver. In books like Ideas Have Consequences and Visions of Order, Weaver combines a disdain for technological culture in general with grave concern about the growing triviality, illogic, and confusion of public discourse. Surely one of the most interesting intellectual transformations of the last two decades has been the appropriation and reshaping of these themes by the New Left. It is a remarkable fu:ct that the conspicuous place of reaction against new technologies of communication is now held by educators of a wholly different stamp from Weaver—men who in earlier works have led the assault against established cultural institutions, but who now would stand as guardians at the door of reason, imagination, and civil discourse. The art of thinking his not gained much in the process.

Theodore Roozak’s assault on the culture of computers, the reader quickly discovers, is part of a protract ed countercultural struggle. In fact, while Roszak’s announced focus is the art of reasoning (and what computers are reputedly doing to it), he seizes every opportunity to toss ideological firebombs at a familiar conspiracy of right-wing politicians, sunbelt capitalists, and militarists who, for the sake of Profit and Power, are determined to push computers down the gullet of an unsuspecting civilization.

The educational benefits of computers have been lavishly oversold, “computer literacy” does lack sub stance, most educational software is trivial, and, notwithstanding the fantastical claims of artificial intelligencers, there are forms of human intelligence that computers can never replace. It is also true that large numbers of ordinary sensible people, including those who use computers daily, are very much aware of these things. In order to believe that these targets of outrage represent much more than normal silliness and hucksterism, the predictable excesses and extravagances that accompany new technologies, you have to believe two things: first, that there is a military industrial-political conspiracy to en chain the spirit; and second, that there is an enormously gullible “popular culture” out there, hopelessly mystified by the new “cult” of information. It is always amazing how self-appointed demystifiers manage to create new mystifications of their own. 

The burden of Roszak’s argument, though, is “to insist that there is a vital distinction between what machines do when they process information and what minds do when they think.” The key terms in this analysis are information, memory, and reasoning—concepts in which civilization has an enormous stake and which computers, it is claimed, have debased and trivialized. The fascination with computers has elevated and generalized the notion of “information” to the point that people can no longer distinguish between factual statements (“Phillies 8, Dodgers 5”), theoretical postulates (“E=MC2”), and a priori judgments (“All men are created equal”). At the same time, computer technology has disconnected “memory” from values and reduced its function to the encoding of data. Computer-model thinking replaces reasoning as moral and intellectual discovery with the mechanical notion of data processing. The overall result is the trivialization of education, the enervation of culture, the subjugation of spirit.

On these points at least, Roszak does raise issues of importance, though not without enormous con.fu sion. Information-processing may en code data indiscriminately, without regard to substance; however, the same is true of any system of representation, including speech and writing. It is only if you think of computers as purposeful agents that this should seem remarkable. The burden of dis crimination fulls upon human beings, not upon their material devices. That is the way it has always been.

Richard Weaver might have put the matter differently: ordinary speech, because of its imprecision, has always abounded in confusions about the status and quality of propositions. Only human beings have the capacity for discerning a pattern of ideas beyond the surfaces of language. Although this capacity should be nurtured by logic and rhetoric, it cannot be destroyed because it is built into the nature of language itself. The reason that computers are not very much help in making dialectical distinctions is that language does not provide the sort of predictable formal clues that a computer would need. And so computers do not replace the need for discernment. But why should they? Although the world might be a safer place if engines of discernment could be in stalled in selected intellectuals, no such engines will ever exist.

We do indeed live in an age in which fact has crowded out value, and in which the obsession with novelty and technology, along with false notions of objectivity, have critically devalued memory and dialectic—the art of reasonable discussion about values. But this condition is the consequence of ideas, not of technology itself, and a preoccupation with technology is no solution but actually another symptom of the larger problem—the ideological reduction of the image of man to a creature of circumstance rather than of freedom arid dignity.

It is difficult to read Roszak without recalling passages from Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric, and Visions of Order. Some may find it distasteful, but the comparison of Roszak to Weaver is instructive because their concerns are so similar; and the directions in which they would lead us are so different. In both, complaints about deteriorations of rhetoric and culture tum upon the regard for memory, judgment, the skill of making distinctions, the power of discussion which joins dear thinking to imagination and emotion, and the openness to ideas and values that cannot be statistically validated. The difference between them, however, is the difference between “the doctor of culture,” who has attained the philosophical distance to know the difference between symptoms and causes, and the cultural critic who has not.

Roszak does not dwell entirely in technological determinism. He is at pains to point out in later chapters that “The Cult of Information” is both a historical reflex and a powerful ally of Cartesian rationalism and radical utilitarianism. Weaver engaged in similar analyses, but with a difference: For Weaver the rejection of rationalism and scientism did not include the rejection of order and tradition; the case for imagination and valuation did not march in celebration of subjectivity; and the emancipation from statistics was not meant to be a liberation from historical fact. One of Weavers dominant conceptions was that of “substance,” which included recognition of an objective order of nature and an objective historical reality to which human beings owed an attitude of responsibility and piety. He lamented the modernist rejection of substance and its exaltation of process and method, including its childlike fascination with technology. Roszak, by contrast, rejects one particular notion of process but has no vision of substance with which to replace it.

The greatest difference between Weaver and Roszak lies in the cultural remedies they prescribe. Whereas Weaver recommended the cultivation of reason and imagination, freedom and individual responsibility, Roszak inclines to’Nard collective controls. He tells us that the information economy must not be allowed to supersede abruptly the old one but “must be gracefully grafted upon the existing industrial system.” (What this murky horticultural metaphor portends be sides centralized planning it is difficult to say.) The collectivist impulse also emerges in Roszak’s special contempt for individual ownership of microcomputers, which he would like to see replaced by larger installations housed in public libraries, where “the power and efficiency of the technology can be maximized [Why?], along with its democratic access.”

Finally, and ironically, an even stronger division emerges in Roszak’s defense of humanistic education. Roszak comes close to a Weaverian statement with his rather eloquent proclamation that “education begins with giving the mind images—not data points or machines—to think with,” The first attentions of education should be devoted not to data but to “master ideas,” conceptions of value best conveyed by classic works of literature such as Homer and the Bible. This is indeed a wonderful conception, but its worst enemies are neither the makers and purveyors of computers nor the alleged “hidden curriculum” of computer literacy. Nor are these enemies chiefly found among those Roszak warns us against:

Left in the hands of parents and teachers, but especially of the Church and the state where these institutions become dominant, ideals easily become forms of indoctrination, idols of the tribe that can tyrannize the young mind. Heroism becomes chauvinism; high bright images become binding conventions. Master ideas are cheapened when they are placed in the keeping of small, timid minds that have grown away from their own childish exuberance. 

If parents are not qualified and teachers are not qualified and traditional institutions are not qualified to be the instruments of culture, then who is qualified, except perhaps a new class of spiritual elites, screened (by whom? by what standard?) for purity of attitude? Such are the confusions of newfangled reactionaries. The “true art of thinking” now dances to the gnostic strains of counterculture.

If Roszak’s critique of the computer represents the excesses of ideological criticism, Neil Postman’s treatment of television, while saner and better based in fact, falters on the super facilities of au arid formalism. Entertaining Ourselves to Death is a popularized criticism of television that draws upon the insights of Marshall McLuhan bat gives them a darker interpretation. Postman wants us to know that, as a medium of communication and therefore as a way of interpreting experience, television is vastly inferior to writing. (who needed to be told this?) The written word encourages serious reflection, logical connection, the discipline of searching out and waiting for contextual meanings; television, by contrast, lives upon the sensual immediacy created by very short, self-contained, discontinuous, and contextless bits of imagery. Entertainment inevitably becomes the for mat for all presentation, and triviality and incoherence are the inevitable results. The “epistemology” of TV is not merely inferior but “dangerous and absurdist,” creating a peekaboo world of illogical and distracting juxtapositions, instantaneous reactions, and pervasive silliness. This corruption of discourse leads, in turn, to a general deterioration of culture, particularly in politics, religion, and education.

Closer upon us than the Roszakian specter of Orwell’s 1984, Postman opines, is the confection of Huxley’s Brave New World, a polity built on immediate gratification and psychobabble, whose pathetically suggestible and self-indulgent members are unfit for freedom. The liberal polity envisioned by the American Founding Fathers protected free trade and free speech, but it assumed a social sphere of rational agents motivated by enlightened self-interest. Postman believes that this sphere, which reached its greatest extent in the writing dominated America of the 18th and 19th centuries, is being eroded by the cultural effects of television.

To those few remaining souls in the world who are not yet anxious about the cultural effects of television (and who may not be inclined to read more serious critics like Walter J. Ong), this book might be recommended as the exposè it tries to be. (Besides, any teacher of writing and literature is inclined to accept support from whet ever he can get it.) No doubt Postman’s devotees in schools of education do need to understand why writing is a crucial discipline. On the other hand, not every direction is a way out of the wilderness, and we should ask which promised land we are being led into. Once again the work of Richard Weaver provides telling points of comparison.

Astonishingly, in 1948 Weaver said many of the same things as Postman except that he was saying them about radio, newspaper, and cinematic journalism! He said them without benefit of Marshall McLuhan and without benefit of the subsequent wonders of TV. In one of the liveliest chapters of Ideas Have Consequences (entitled “The Great Stereopticon”), we find identified the same destructive tendencies that Postman finds in television: the relentless striving toward entertainment, the scattered and fragmented contexts, the absence of dialectical connection, the trivializing and inane juxtapositions, and the exaltation of the sensual over the intellectual. But of course there is a big difference here, and once again it is the difference between the philosophic doctor and the critic who is condemned to a certain participation in the very dis ease he seeks to cure; for Weaver’s basic point was not about media pure and simple but about the symptoms of a culture that had lost its grip on eternal principles and its sense of his tory. And the very fact that TV was still in the future proves the point.

Neil Postman is editor of ETC, one of the last remaining vestiges of General Semantics, a positivistic pseudo discipline of the 1940’s, against which Weaver battled continually and which has been chiefly responsible for purveying the modem superstition that the world’s problems can be resolved by better, more logical communication. Although Semantics has loosened its connection with scientism and no longer engages in arcane prescriptions designed to “objectify” language, it does continue—generally through courses taught in modern schools of “communication”—its fulsome tradition of liberal cultural criticism disguised as linguistic analysis. Despite its worthwhile critique of the “epistemology” of television, Entertaining Ourselves to Death continues the same tiresome tradition, drawing most of its negative examples from the familiar Nationesque repertoire: Republican politicians, fundamentalist Christians, the military. 

More damaging than the political bias is the implicit formalism and technological determinism of the en tire project. This fundamental error leads Postman to hang entirely too much cultural freight (and too many hopes) purely and simply upon the medium of writing (which Plato and Weaver regarded as dangerously inferior in some respects to oral dialogue). He worries legitimately about a dis course “drained of substance,” but he lacks a vision of the substance to which human discourse is responsible. 

Although television is a powerful symbol and agent of the manifold idiocies of contemporary civilization, many of the deteriorations of culture that Postman laments were developing quite nicely before television came along, and they had at least something to do with matters of belief and values. The call for “media consciousness” will undoubtedly be good for a round of consultancies and education department workshops. It may even marginally advance rational discourse. However, the proposed reconstitution of discourse and culture in our time, including the taming of TV and much else, will be brought about only by attention to the substance as well as the technology of communication, the whats and whys as well as the hows of literacy. 


[The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, by Theodore Roszak; New York: Pantheon Books]

[Entertaining Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman; New York: Viking]