The following is a discourse on Neil Postman's essay entitled “The Improbable World”. Deceit and exploitation, according to Neil Postman, are what many of the social-science experiments are based upon. This is why he thinks that social science must be viewed with careful scrutiny. He uses a first person narrative throughout out the essay and we shall, for the sake of this summary, portray him in the second person. Postman begins his essay by describing an experiment of his own devising in which he goes up to one of his colleagues who is not apparently in possession of the morning's newspaper. He then asks them if they have read the morning's paper or not and if they answer negatively, he proceeds by giving some bogus news to them. In this paper, he gave the news that science has proven that jogging reduces intelligence, which was of course, a ridiculous thing to say. But he claims that if he puts the information nicely and in a convincing manner to his colleagues, he is able to derive many different kinds of reactions from them. Postman reports that he is able to convince at least about two-thirds of the people.
Postman concludes many things from this private and eccentric research. He believes that in the light of what H.L. Meneken said fifty years ago “that there is no idea so stupid that you can't find a professor who will believe it.” (Paragraph 4) Postman postulates that just like people in the Middle Ages used to believe in the authority of the religion as being the ultimate one, people nowadays believe whatever science spits out to them. Aside form this we also tend to believe everything science in the power of Technopoly has to say because we don't have any reasons to not to believe in that. Nothing surprises us these days because we have so much knowledge and so much advances are being made in the scientific and social world that hardly any news seems extraordinary to us. Postman states that “Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief. (Paragraph 5)”
He explains with the examples of a deck of cards. A new deck of cards, when laid out would be in order, from the Ace to deuce, to Jack, Queen and King. We all know what to expect because we know that a new deck is factory-arranged. We would be surprised if a number out of the series were to turn up. Similarly if we lay out a deck of cards that has been shuffled 20 times, we would hardly expect a pattern and would not be surprised at the random turning up of any card. Postman relates this to the culture that we have, saying that the culture is like a brand-new deck of cards. We pretty much know what to expect from our daily in and out lives and there exists a law and order to some degree. Once again Postman relates to the medieval era where religion was used to describe and explain all occurrences in the area, from birth to sickness to death. There were no random events in the lives of the people and the churches kept the deck of cards in some sort an order that did not surprise the people. Galileo tried to shuffle the cards with his ideas of science and that is why the priests of those days tried to stop him from continuing.
That's when the word of the Bible started to decline in the name of Progress, which was advancement due to science and technology and it was thought that it would mean an end to ignorance, superstition and suffering, which it did to a certain extent in areas like “sanitation, pharmacology, transportation, production, and communication.” (Paragraph 8) Nature, as well as the human soul, was put on the pedestal and more things were learnt about both. But it was wrong for us to think that information would prove to be the new god of our cultures. Although it solved a lot of problems, there were many more disadvantages to it that are apparent today, the most important one being of information glut that has led to information chaos. It is this chaos that has shuffled the cards so much that there cannot be found any logical or sequential series in the cards and no one knows what to expect and therefore no one is ever surprised at any card anymore. Here Postman asks some fundamental questions like: “What is the problem in the Middle East, or South Africa, or Northern Ireland? Is it lack of information that keeps these conflicts at fever pitch? Is it lack of information about how to grow food that keeps millions at starvation levels? Is it lack of information that leads to high divorce rates and keeps the beds of mental institutions filled to overflowing?” (Paragraph 9)
Postman answers these questions by saying that insufficient information is hardly the cause for so many political, social and personal problems. The Technopolist argues that the world needs yet more information and Postman argues that gathering more information only leads to gathering more and more information, a phenomena he describes as information glut, and one that he describes as being very dangerous and one whose consequences should be relevantly realized. Postman begins describing this phenomenon by tracing its history to the sixteenth century when the first printing press was first setup. Fifty years later, there were more than eight million books available in print, almost all of which contained information that had been previously unavailable to an average person in areas of “law, agriculture, politics, exploration, metallurgy, botany, linguistics, pediatrics, and good manners.” (Paragraph 11) Contracts, maps and deeds also became popular in the same era. As time went by, the amount of information increased and new, novel and more innovative ideas came up for the printers to print onto their publications, ideas for section heads, paragraphing, title pages and running heads. People also started coming up with ways of cross-referencing the knowledge with other books. All this combined gives us the form of the books that we read today.
At the time that such knowledge and its distribution were growing, people started realizing that there should be placed some control over the flow of information and started to organize knowledge by “establishing priorities and giving them a sequence.” (Paragraph 13) Schools were opened up in all areas of England to regulate the distribution of knowledge, as a curriculum that is taught in a school is a measure of control for the amount, or nature, of the knowledge that is to be divulged to the people. As technocracy grew, several methods were employed to control the flow of information, some of which have now become extinct.
In our modern days, if we begin our sentence by saying something on the lines of “'a study has shown' or 'scientists now tell us that?‚?¦” (Paragraph 15) it is more likely to be approved and accepted by people. This happens for a number of reasons. One of them is, as described above, the press. People use printed material to understand simply what a complicated experiment of a scientist concluded. Almost all of the scientific study done today is recorded in paper and most of it is available to the normal public to read and interpret. Religious leaders also use printed materials and books to convey their message and in doing so they are able to reach out many more people than people could in the earlier days. Books and paper are very portable and this makes it very easy for the word to spread around very quickly and over a very large area. “By the beginning of the seventh century, astronomy, anatomy, physics, literature, essays, practical knowledge about machines, agriculture and medicine were accessible to anyone who could read.” (Paragraph 18) This is how the technocracies were made possible in the Western world. Until the mid-nineteenth century, no other significant technology was introduced that changed the speed, volume or form of information. This led to acculturation of the West to the use of books in their everyday life. New schools and institutions were setup and the people's ideas about knowledge and intelligence were changed and developed into many more new ideas. People found a new way of expressing themselves and this led to a setup of a level of excellence that was paved by the great scholars like “Goethe, Kant, Hume, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Thomas Paine.” (Paragraph 20)
There are many American names in this list because “technocratic-typographic America was the first nation ever to be argued into existence in print,” (Paragraph 21) the most important piece of document being Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Even the first amendment to the United States Constitution is an example of how the prints had, and even now, affect the way a culture is shaped. The Constitution itself states that the there should be a public “that not only has access to information but has control over it, a people who know how to use information in their own interests.” (Paragraph 22) The founding fathers of the United States had similar ideas, and although they did not believe that all information was correct, they did believe that the citizens should be able to distinguish between what was right and what was wrong and use the information correctly.
Postman concludes his essay by describing the state of our situation today. He gives some statistics like there are “260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspaper; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting video tapes; more than 500 million radios; and more than 100 million computers. Ninety-eight percent of American homes have a television set, 40,000 new book titles are published every year (300,000 worldwide), and every day in America, 41 million photographs are taken. And if this is not enough, more than 60 billion pieces of junk mail (thanks to computer technology) find their way into our mailboxes every year.” (Paragraph 27) We are being bombarded with information wherever we go. Information is pouring in and being stored on so many different kinds of mediums that it is not possible anymore to keep track or count of the amount of information that is being revolved around the world. Postman calls information as garbage and says that we are nothing but janitors, trying to sweep up and throwing away the knowledge in different and appropriate bins. Such a large amount of information that is being manipulated by us has made all this information lose its theory, meaning and purpose. And all of this is being called our new world, where information is thought to alleviate ignorance, superstition and suffering. We are continuously finding ourselves accommodating to new and newer technology thinking that all this new and wonderful information will lead us into a better life. No one today knows how to control this flow of information and we keep consuming more information on the rationale that our culture would suffer critically if we were to stop. What we have not really realized that we would suffer even more crucially if we keep on accumulating information.
Postman, Neil. “The Improbable World”. In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. 1992