Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Prime Passage: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (1985)

A quarter-century after its publication, Postman’s classic litany of questions remains salutary as we confront an age of Social Media and the e-book.

“What is information? Or more precisely, what are information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intelligence, wisdom, and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? Is there a moral bias to each information form? What does it mean to say that there is too much information? How would one know? What redefinitions of important cultural meanings do new sources, speeds, contexts, and forms of information require? … How do different forms of information persuade? … How do different information forms dictate the type of content that is expressed?

“To ask is to break the spell. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political, and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to television. Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology — that the principle difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data — will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection of speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Prime Passage: George Washington's Farewell Address (1796)

Seems to me that Washington's words are well worth weighing amid the current party-line fracas concerning Health Care reform.

“There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume …

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened

It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

Read the whole address here.