Neutral On Neutrality – Scott McClellan juxtaposes two oft-claimed opinions on ministry, media and culture… and finds that they just don’t add up.


9 Comments

  1. Ugh. Not Postman again. I still fail to see the allure. And this article did nothing to vindicate Postman’s sense of form being content. In the end, it wasn’t a very informative article.

    Here’s a summary: There are two ways in which people talk about technology. I have a crush on Neil Postman—who said some things that we’re not going get into, evaluate, or discuss in any meaningful way. Therefore, technology is not neutral and you should stop thinking it is. Because Neil Postman said some stuff that we’re not going to talk about.

    You’re just linking this stuff to frustrate me, aren’t you Rich? An article that actually had some content to it (even if I disagreed) would have been nice. This, though?

  2. I admit I’m a little taken aback by the tone of your comment, but I’d be happy to discuss Postman in more detail if you’d like.

  3. Hey Scott, you shouldn’t be taken aback. I’m just grumpy. The number of times Postman has been invoked in regard to various mediums or technologies over the last decade without justification has only served to fortify my level of annoyance at an idea that at best seems counter intuitive to me. And that makes me grumpy.

    Then Rich links to your post, which doesn’t evaluate or justify his claims either. To be fair, it looks like your post was just a blog post and not an actual article for the magazine̵in which case, I can be more forgiving of it for not really providing any content save for the statement of your opinion (we can do that sort of thin in blog posts and comments, after all).

    So really, I’m just grumpy at Rich for posting a link to an article that doesn’t further discussion but merely posits an opinion that I’ve seen posted left and right over my blogging years.

    Of course, if you believe your post did engage the concept, you’re free to make a case for that, but I think you’d have a tough time finding evidence for the claim. Here’s your article, as it is revealed to a reader:

    1) You begin by presenting a dichotomy of views: neutral tech/media and a media-forged generation (neither of these views are mutually exclusive and really have no relation to each other, so their juxtaposition here is awkward).

    2) You claim contradiction between the views. This contradiction is never explained, but you do state that you never saw the contradiction until reading Postman’s most famous work.

    3) You tell but don’t show: Postman demonstrates through an overview of public discourse that the tools with which we communicate alter the content of the communication. We never see how this is the case. From this point on, the point is assumed. Print = good for ideological discussion. TV and internet = good for entertainment. There is never any demonstration how this is actually the case. (This is what I mean when I say your article has no content save for the statement of an opinion; you don’t offer the reader any tools with which to evaluate your claims.)

    4) You then cite one tangential point of Postman’s thesis and follow that with a dogmatic statement from the man himself—one which I’m sure he offers justification for in his book, but one which sits contextless in your post like a curiosity. It’s bold and interesting, but pretty easily disproven; after all, I know something of the history of technology and I find that the vessel of communication is neutral to the purposes of communication.

    5) You recommend Postman’s book, which is a fine thing to do. You also encourage an abandonment of the Tech Is Neutral ideology, but your recommendation is based wholly on an argument that your reader is not privy to.

    Look, I make recommendations like this all the time. Don’t watch FoxNews, it’s dumb. Don’t waste time with Transformers 2, it can’t be better than the first one, which was trash. Sushi is built out of evil. Part of the fun of having an opinion is foisting it on others. Still, when someone calls me out and says, Hey look, you said that FoxNews is dumb and I shouldn’t watch it, but you never justified your position, I usually say, “Yep, you’re right. I didn’t.” And then I either justify my opinion to one degree or another or say, “Maybe some other time thanks.”
    _________________________

    Like I said, you’re more than welcome to present a blogpost in which you state an opinion without backing it up. My irritation is that Rich linked to it and that I read it. I want to expect better of CAPC’s links than just a link to a flat statement of opinion that I’ve seen eight-and-a-half million times before. I want to see engagement of ideas in such a way that readers can interact. Your post offered the reader three essential options: boo, yay, or head-scratching. I was caught somewhere between boo and head-scratching.

    So yeah, my tone had nothing in particular to do with you or your post. Things might be different if it were a full-blown article, but it wasn’t.

  4. Clearly, I did a poor job in my blog post of articulating the conversation that was going on in my noggin. My objectives were:

    1) Briefly argue that one can’t reasonably assert that technology is entirely neutral while also asserting that people have been changed by technology. Believe whatever you want, I just don’t think it makes sense to have it both ways.

    2) Give credit to Postman’s work where it was due and, perhaps, inspire a few people to grab the book and read it for themselves. He unpacks his arguments and declarations better than I ever could, especially given the constraints of a blog.

    To the extent that I failed to meet those objectives or to the extent that my objectives should’ve been more noble or ambitious, forgive me. I’m not a patient, intelligent, or skilled writer. To the extent that Rich fails to provide us with worthy link fodder, forgive him. His mind has been ravaged by the not-so-neutral medium of video gaming.

  5. WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?!?!

    I linked the blog because it points out something that I personally have NOT seen left and right over MY blogging years: the contradiction scott clarifies above. I thought it was helpful to juxtapose those two ideas.

    And frankly, I enjoy reading and discussing Postman, not so much because I agree with everything he says, but because he dared to second guess those who claimed various mediums were simply empty containers through which we might funnel our ideas. So, Scott’s blog was a perfect storm which I link to without thinking too hard about it. After all, a post in the “Of the Moment” section takes up how much space? Not enough to matter. And that’s by design.

    P.S. If my mind has been ravaged by anything, it’s the fact that my wife insists on watching top 20 radio while i’m in the car. Also I bought the Owl City album.

  6. @Scott – You absolutely succeed in your second objective, if that’s any consolation. ^_^

    As to your first, I think you’re equivocating on the the Kind of neutrality referred to by those who say that tech is neutral. Like how we can validly say that Switzerland is neutral and yet the nation’s activities affect many lives daily.

    When we say technology is neutral, we’re not saying that its use does not affect people (see tinnitus for an obvious example). Instead, we’re saying that technology does not force a foreign value into content. If there is a foreign value, it is added atop content by audience experience of the content.

    In the relationship between form, experience, and content, Postmanesque understanding says form is content, that experience is content. I say that form changes the way one experiences content. It’s true that experiences give meaning to those having the experiences, but I think those experiences are incidental rather than intrinsic to the form (that delivers the content). The medium is not the message. The message is the message and the recipient’s experience of the message through her experience of the medium’s conveyance of the message may differ wildly from the content of the message. This doesn’t change the message. It just means that the communication was distorted somewhere along the line.

    This distortion could come from any number of places. The messenger’s inadequate use of chosen medium. The medium’s inadequacy as a vessel for communication. Or, most likely, the reader’s import of additional meaning through the matrix of his experience of the message via the medium (an experience affect by things as various as prejudice, mood, correlation, prior experiences, misapprehension, cognitive dissonance, etc.).

    @Rich – What have you done to deserve this?? You host a blog! That means you deserve this and more.

    I’m surprised you haven’t seen much on Postman. He was super en vogue to write about maybe four years ago. Him and Nancy Pearcey (the Total Truth lady).

    I realize what the Asides section is for. But I can still wish that the links were universally worth following, can’t I? I think the link to Scott’s post would be interesting if the idea presented (even if not supported) was particularly striking. But this idea’s been alive since the ’60s at least and while it’s super popular amongst young-ish Christians, it’s kind of tired (at least in representations I’ve seen) and not nuanced enough to say anything very valuable about our world.

    As for Postman daring to second-guess the establishment? That was cute. Do it again please! Postman’s right up there with Thor and Baldur as models of courage and daring ^_^

  7. On neutrality, Postman argues that a medium does force a foreign value into content. I agree with his arguments and examples in the book (smoke signals, telegraphs, William Taft as an unelectable fat guy in a visual world, televangelists, etc.), but if he didn’t persuade you I’m not going to try.

    Regarding medium/message, I believe Postman says he doesn’t agree with McLuhan on that point. Instead, Postman argues that the medium is the metaphor — that media shapes content and shapes cultural perceptions about what kind of content is important.

    As an aside, can I borrow your proclivity for lengthy critical analysis sometime? That would come in handy in my line of work.

  8. @Scott – I’ll agree that group perception of a particular medium will shape the kind of content that authors generally will attempt to push through said medium. Example: group perception of the kind of content that comic books were good at conveying hindered the use of the medium for decades.

    This, however, is not a function of the medium so much as it is a function of reader/author bias against a medium. In every case I can think of, the bias is foreign to the medium and imported onto it by an unimaginative society.

    And yes, you can borrow it sometimes, but I’ll warn you that it necessarily comes with cynicism bundled.

  9. I certainly agree that readers and authors bring biases to a medium. I guess where we’ll have to agree to disagree is the notion that each medium brings its own biases as well.

    Party on, good sir.

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