Postman’s Paradox

Meet Neil Postman.

We’ll be seeing a lot of him here on this weblog.

Recently, it has become fashionable to elevate certain media types known collectively as Web 2.0 to an almost messianic status.  Which means that it has become quite fashionable to condemn those who espouse messianic views of Web 2.0.  The pernicious scientism and links to Big Data that are part and parcel of the Web 2.0 “computer romanticism” will be examined a later date, but there is a feature about the Web 2.0 skeptics that should be examined beforehand.

Let’s say that you are school district  engaging in yet another futile attempt to get students to stop writing in that damn txt speak.

Like that’ll work

To stop this brain rot, you decide to have a month of no txt speak. Now, what would be the best way to get this message across? You could use TV advertisements, but your target demographic lives on Youtube and Hulu. A poster maybe? Not without half-naked chicks, and that’s a no-no.  Then you remember your Media Ecology class that you took in Grad School, so you go and drag out “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by, yup, Neil Postman.  You search through the various gems in the book , but then this one grabs your attention:

In  other  words,  Ms.  Babcock  hopes  that  by watching  television,  people  will  learn  that  they  ought  to  stop watching television. It is hard to imagine that Ms. Babcock does  not see the irony in this position. It is an irony that I have  confronted many  times in being told  that  I must  appear  on  television  to  promote  a  book  that  warns  people  against  television. Such are the contradictions of a television-based  culture.

Then it hits you – if you want children to stop using text messaging, you will have to tell them to stop by sending text messages. So then, Postman’s paradox can be stated as such:

 A critique of an institution that requires usage of that very same institution in order to have any meaningful effect – rendering the critique self-refuting.

Therefore, any wholehearted denunciation of a medium will inevitably fail, as you will have to use that very same medium to make your point come across, thus revealing you as either a fool or a hypocrite. I say wholehearted, as opposed to nuanced, as technological advancement in any medium will  cause the previous medium to be able to replicate the one that preceded it. Radio becomes encapsulated by television, and the Internet encapsulates everything previous to it, rendering it the Proteus of media. I am, for the purposes of the above example, ignoring bandwidth ,as seeing Richard Nixon’s face would reveal an inverse relationship between his words and the truth , while the web browser “features” can be a distraction onto itself.

Media is not the only place where Postman’s paradox applies. It can apply in the case of a black man who can only get message across by using the apparatus provided by that very same racist society. Or  the anti-consumerist who uses the very capitalist system that he is protesting to get his message across.

Why Postman’s paradox does not apply to himself, and what nullifies the paradox, is the realization that institutions, media, ideologies and other technics are not a choice between good and evil, but good and bad. But never neutral.


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