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75[TH] Anniversary reprint the information environment.

Every society is held together by certain modes and patterns of communication that control the kind of society it is. One may call them information systems, codes, message networks, or media of communication; taken together they set and maintain the parameters of thought and learning within a culture. Just as the physical environment determines what the source of food and exertions of labor shall be, the information environment gives specific direction to the kinds of ideas, social attitudes, definitions of knowledge, and intellectual capacities that will emerge.

For example, there are people, like the aborigines, whose repertoire of communication possibilities consists almost entirely of talking to each other, face to face. The word is never isolated from the body that produces it. There is, therefore, always an immediate and specific context in which meaning is shared. Feedback is never an issue: communication always includes response. This situation gives both their interactions and their thought a high degree of subjectivity, spontaneity, and emotion. But it does not provide an occasion or stimulus for sustained speculation. Without disembodied words there is no disinterested thought. Everyone is, so to speak, an existentialist.

Introduce hieroglyphics or, if you can imagine it, a tape recorder to such people and you will alter their information environment, and with it, the sort of people they will be. When a medium of communication has the power to disembody words, to split them away from their original source, the psychological and social effects of language are forever changed. In such an environment, language becomes something more than a mode of communication. It becomes an object of contemplation. One may look at it, as in a mirror, and study how it is put together, with the result that the mind itself may become an object of contemplation. At which point philosophers (not to mention grammarians) must emerge to reflect on reflection and on what might be the connection between language and reality. Everyone may become a Platonist.

Or this may happen: Let us assume an aborigine has conceived of a way to chisel a message on stone. The message being more durable than its author, it will become more important than he, and will be read and reread over centuries. In such a situation, we should not be surprised if readers not only dispute the meaning of the message but ponder the meaning of time, and then of mortality itself. It is in fact not uncommon for people whose messages have endured, unchanging, for centuries to become obsessed with time, as were the ancient Egyptians and the Mayans.

And this may happen, too: A few will learn the symbols in which the message is encoded, and most will not. Thus, the few will be in possession of information to which the many have no access. The few will have, or seem to have (which is the same thing in this case), enormous and secret powers. Thus, priests will emerge to whom special privileges will be given and in whom there will reside special powers of explanation and authority.

And suppose it happens that someone, through accident or design, discovers that messages do not need to be chiseled in stone but can be scratched on a leaf or a reed. To be sure, not a very durable medium but one that can be carried far and wide and with considerable speed.

Perhaps then the obsession with time will recede, to be replaced by a fascination with the mysteries of space. Thus, explorers and conquerors may emerge, and messages will tell of things happening in other places but maintain silence on what has happened in other times.

I shall not speak here of what may happen if you introduce television to a culture such as ours. What I wish to explore is the idea that the means by which people communicate comprise an environment just as real and influ-ential as the terrain on which they live. And further: that when there occurs a radical shift in the structure of that environment this must be followed by changes in social organization, intellectual predispositions, and a sense of what is real and valuable. And further still: that it is the business of the educator to assess the biases of the information environment with a view toward making them visible and keeping them under control. A society that is unaware of what its information environment is leading to may become overwhelmed by philosophers, priests, conquerors, or even explorers.

Or it may forget how to remember. Or may confine its imagination only to what it can remember. I mean to imply that it is the and adjust the information environment wherever possible so that its inherent biases and drift do not monopolize the intellect and character of our youth.

No one knew this better than Plato. All philosophy, Whitehead remarked, is only a footnote to Plato--perhaps all education, as well. But if that is too much to say. Plato at least provides us with the first and one of the best illustrations of a direct response to the information environment. He does it by banishing poets from his curriculum. He gives as his reason that poets, including Homer himself, do not always tell the truth about the gods, and further, that their influence is powerful. He completes the syllogism by concluding that a powerful influence that does not tell the truth ought not to be included in the formal education of the young. At this level of argument, Plato sounds like a modern-day fundamentalist arguing against the teaching of evolution in the schools.

But if one probes deeper, as has, for example, Eric Havelock, something else emerges. Plato, it turns out, was as much concerned with the effects of the form of epic poetry-indeed, with the form of any kind of information-as with its content, and in this respect his argument has the greatest possible importance to our own situation. Plato, like ourselves, was facing a critical shift in the structure of information within his culture. As an educationist, he vigorously addressed the problems attending that shift-as I believe we must do-and it is worth taking the time to see what we may learn from him.

In his Preface to Plato, Havelock reminds us that although the Greek alphabet was perhaps four hundred years old at the time Plato wrote The Republic, Athens was still only semiliterate. Greek youth did not always learn to read, and those who did began their instruction in adolescence, not in elementary school. There certainly did not exist a rich supply of texts to read, and such reading as was necessary was confined to public documents and inscriptions. The poets were writers, of course, but their poems were composed to be heard, not read, and the finished product was either recited or acted. The fact is that the culture which Plato was dealing with was one in which oral communication still dominated all the important transactions in life.

Moreover, their oral literature did not serve the same function for Athenian youth as literature came to serve later-for either the Greeks or us.

In Plato's time, literature was the major means through which the traditions of the culture were transmitted. Its purpose, therefore, was more didactic than diversionary. (The Greek word from which we derive epic meant, simply, discourse.) There being no textbooks to read, no reference books to consult, no monographs to peruse, the Athenian student had to memorize vast and complex quantities of Homeric poetry, the result of which provided him with a complete history of the symbols and values of his culture. He was, so to speak, a living, mobile library.

But how could such feats of memory be achieved? Our own youth can hardly be counted on to memorize "Paul Revere's Ride."

If you ask them, also, to memorize Hiawatha, you have pushed them over the precipice. The answer, and the difference, lies in the form of information and the context in which it is experienced. In a phrase, the information environment . Today, all written literature, even poetry, is intended to be read-seen with the eye-and largely experienced in isolation from others. This was not the case in Plato's time. Poetry, as I have mentioned, was to be heard and was almost always experienced through public performances. Frequently, it was done to the accompaniment of a harp, an audio (but not visual) aid that is used to this very day to augment TV or radio commercial messages. We do not use a harp, of course, but Plato would understand very well why commercial messages are sung or at least recited with a musical background. Rhythm assists remembering, and he would be quick to point out that it also "cripples the intellect." But that is slightly ahead of the story.

In Plato's time the memorizing power of youth was enhanced not only through music but in many ways, including constant repetition in every available context--at banquets, at family rituals, in the marketplace, and at the theater. And, of course, the youth themselves were performers, acting their epics as they heard them acted whenever possible. Performance and poetry were inseparable. This meant that the young were involved emotionally and subjectively with the content of their discourses to a degree we would find difficult to grasp. Today, we wish our young to "appreciate" literature and to exercise their own judgment in evaluating its merit. Athenian youth were concerned to reproduce their literature, not reflect upon it. They did not so much evaluate characters and their situations as they identified with them and relived their experience. A sense of critical detachment was not only unnecessary, it was undesirable. As Havelock says: "You threw yourself into the situation of Achilles, you identified with his grief or his anger. You yourself became Achilles. . . Thirty years later you could automatically quote what Achilles had said or what the poet had said about him. Such enormous powers of poetic memorization could be purchased only at the cost of total loss of objectivity."

A total loss of objectivity! This was the price to be paid for the perpetuation of the history of the society. It is a price an oral culture always must pay. And it was this state of affairs, this learning style, this use of the intellect, to which Plato objected and which led him to banish the poets. As Walter Ong remarks: "Plato was telling his compatriots that it was foolish to imagine that the intellectual needs of life in Greek society could still be met by memorizing Homer."

Plato meant to provide Greek youth with an alternative education, one which emphasized abstract thought as against concrete imagery, and critical detachment as against subjective involvement. He meant to prepare Greek youth for the psychological and intellectual biases of the written word and to wean them from their orientation to the spoken word.

Plato grasped that writing, by providing us with a transpersonal memory, not only made ritualized memorizing pointless but also opened the way to new uses of the intellect. The inscription over his Academy, "Let none enter who knows not geometry," was a rebuke to the biases of epic poetry and an invitation to exploit the abstract, disembodied, highly visual bias of the written symbol. For, as Plato knew, the written word directs our attention to symbols rather than things. Because the phonetic symbol always refers to things that are not present and most often to things we do not know about, it permits us to go (to quote Harold Innis) "beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations." Moreover, we travel to and in that world through the eye, by seeing the symbols of our symbols. Writing freezes, as with a still camera, the fluid, nonrepeatable moments of speech, and fixes our thought in space as well as in time. Through the alphabet, we can see our mind at work, reflect on its processes, and put it in order. Almost all of our methods of classifying, comparing, and contrasting presuppose a visual, stabilized abstraction of speech. The word-idea" itself means visual image, the look of things.

Homeric Greek does not contain the word "ideos" from which it is derived. Idea is a product of literacy. One may even wish to go as far as Marshall McLuhan and say that mind itself is a consequence of literacy.

The spoken word-rhythmic. aural, subjective, resonant, always in the present-versus the written word-cold, visual, abstract, objective, timeless. This was the conflict, the invisible issue which generated an education crisis. What was at stake here was not the virtue of Greek youth but their intellect, for Plato knew that the dominant form of information in a culture shapes the intellectual orientation of its citizens. As a matter of fact, so did his teacher, Socrates. In the Phaedrus. Socrates speaks sharply against the intrusions of the written word. He explains that writing will reduce the power of our memories. Which it did. That it will make dialectic impossible since it forces us to follow an argument rather than to participate in it. Which it does. And finally, that writing will undermine our concepts of privacy and social propriety since it is a "mass medium" of sorts. To quote him: "Once a word is written, it goes rolling all about, comes indifferently among those who understand it and those whom it no wise concerns, and is unaware to whom it should address itself and to whom it should not do so."

Both Socrates and Plato, then, were fully aware of the shaping power of a new means of communication. Those who think that-the medium is the message" is a modern conception should note that twenty-three hundred years ago both Plato and Socrates in speaking of writing addressed themselves to what the written word, irrespective of its content, is capable of doing to a culture. But, of course, teacher and student were on opposite ends of the education argument. Socrates was the oral man, the discourse man, the defender of the powers and biases of the human dialectic. He wrote no books himself, and were it not for Xenophon and Plato, who did, we would know almost nothing of him. Plato was the writing man, the scientific man, the promoter of the powers and biases of the written word. He not only wrote about Socrates but prepared the texts he wished Greek youth to study, and even suggested that reading instruction should begin at four years of age. Plato prevailed, of course. By the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had passed through its stage of semiliteracy, and entered a period of visual thinking and learning on which all of its education became based and on which all Western education remained based for over two thousand years.

What we may learn from all of this has, as I have said, the greatest possible relevance to our own situation. We may see, first of all, the sense in which Plato was putting forward a countervailing view of education. His culture being in the thrall of the oral tradition, he stressed the virtues of the written word. That he was in this circumstance a revolutionary, not a conservative, is irrelevant. To everything there is a season, and a time to every education under heaven. Had Plato been born a hundred years later perhaps he would have tried to foster the values of epic poetry and its memorization, Perhaps he would have filled his school with harps and the words of the poets, and would have inscribed over his Academy, "Let none enter who knows not Homer. There is, in fact, some reason to believe in the plausibility of that idea. In his Seventh Letter, Plato remarks that "no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language, especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of that which is set down in written characters." And, of course, we must remember that it is Plato who wrote the arguments against writing that we attribute to Socrates.

Plato, in other words, saw both sides of the picture. He knew the value of both speech and writing, but in the context of that time and place, he decided in favor of the written word. And he so decided because it was the spoken word that controlled the minds of the young. The written word was to release them from its grip. Though Plato did not say it, he must have believed that at that juncture the function of education was to free the young from the tyranny of the past. Sometimes the function of education is. to free the young from the tyranny of the present. It depends on what is the character of the information environment.

Thus, we may infer that Plato knew that the imagery, character, and ideology of every society are not only shaped by but created by its dominant means of forming, retaining, and distributing information. But perhaps Plato did not know, as many have learned since, how complex the structure of information is, for it is comprised of several properties, all of which are interrelated.

Information, first and foremost, has form; it is generated by a particular coding system and through the use of certain materials that make our symbols tangible and give them life. Speech itself is surely the most important of all information forms, and it hardly needs to be said that without speech, very little information can be created. Through speech our species became information creators, gatherers, and sharers of the highest order. It is, however, worth noting that languages themselves differ vastly in their form and as a consequence produce different kinds and categories of information about the world. The language of the Hopi Indians is structured so differently from our own that we must expect that Hopis will not see the world quite the way we do. Their language, for example, does not conceive of time by the same metaphors as does our own, and the aspects of reality their language directs them to name and classify are by no means the same as in our own coding system. Language, as many anthropologists have shown, is not merely a means of communicating. It is also an organ of perception. It creates the world as much as reflects it by calling our attention to some parts of it and by turning us away from other parts. This much we have known or at least suspected for centuries

But beyond this, we have not sufficiently understood the extent to which our other coding systems are also windows to the world, filled with optical illusions and peculiar refractions. It makes a difference in our perceptions of the world and our attentions to it whether we are chiseling ideographs on stone tablets or scratching phonetically alphabetized words on papyrus. In fact it even makes a difference if the alphabet we are using has no vowels (as in the case of the Semitic alphabet) or if it does (as in the case of the Greek).

It makes a difference because information is not reality. It is an abstraction of it. How high the abstraction or how low, how durable or transient, how precise or gross, how systematic or undifferentiated, how easily repeatable or unique-these will all be settled by the code and its associated material. The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media-metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information.

But information also has quantity or magnitude. How much information we may get depends of course on the forms in which it is available. "Of the making of many books," it is written in Ecclesiastes, "there is no end." Imagine what this overburdened reader might have thought about a society in which thousands of books are published every year, and thousands of copies of each one. Think for a moment of how much we depend on a constant supply of information in order to complete one day in our lives without disaster. Think also of all the institutions that exist solely for the purpose of processing and distributing information. From this point of view, we are surely permitted to say that our social institutions do not create information. It is information that creates our social institutions. Moreover, the problems of a society with an insufficient amount of information are entirely different from those of a society with too much information. Both societies, however, may collapse, one from emaciation, the other from satiation.

Information also has speed or velocity. It makes a difference in what we make of the world if information moves slowly, as in oral cultures, or at the speed of light, as in electronic cultures. It makes a difference, too, in which directions the information moves, who has access to it, and in what sorts of circumstances. In short, not only do our media-metaphors direct our attention to selected aspects of reality but they do it fast or slow, in large or small amounts, and by delegating certain roles for us to play in the process.

In reading this essay, for example, you have most likely isolated yourself from others, seated yourself, tried to shut down your ears, and have agreed to follow my arguments; such as they are, line by line, page by page. The left hemisphere of your brain is exceedingly active and is engaged in reflection and analysis. The muscles of your eyes will soon enough begin to tire, which will limit the duration of your involvement. At that point, should you wish to express an important disagreement with what I have mitten, you will not have access to the one person most in need, however reluctantly, of your opinion. Me. If you knew my telephone number, you could get your opinion to me with great speed and with the unique sense of conviction and urgency that only the human voice can convey. At the same time, in speaking with me on the phone, you will have entered, with me, into a strange world of acoustic space in which disembodied voices exchange information intimately and in specially developed personas. If you cannot reach me by telephone, you may write a letter, but it will be slow in arriving, and I am not compelled to answer or I can pretend not to understand. In any case, we will be separated by an impressive psychological distance, which I should not fail to exploit.

Think of it all for a moment: How strange are the forms in which information is created and reality abstracted-in sounds, scribbles, dots, pictures, electronic impulses. And what materials they require-paper of variable textures, ink, screens, lights, punches, discs. And how much of it we may get and in what sequences. And think especially of what is required of our brains, senses, and bodies to get it. We must sit in dark palaces or well-lit living rooms. Light may come from behind a screen or in front of it. Pictures intersect sentences. We must go back in time or ahead of it. Or time may be suspended, contracted, or expanded. And think of how slowly some forms of information move and how rapidly do others. And think of where these forms come from and to whom they are addressed. Surely it is not too much to say that the configuration of all these properties of information has the deepest physiological, psychological, and social consequences. Nor is it too much to say--in fact, it is saying the same thing--that the configuration of these properties at any given time and place comprises an invisible environment around which we form our ideas about time and space, learning, knowledge, and social relations.

For example, a society in which law is codified in written words thinks differently about property, contracts, and obligations from a society in which law exists only in memory. "A single copy of the Twelve Tables has greater weight and authority than all the philosophies of the world," Cicero wrote. This is an idea that was incomprehensible to the Anglo-Saxons when brought to them by the Romans, as indeed it is incomprehensible to our contemporary aborigines. Perhaps it is no longer even comprehensible to us. Living, as we do, in an electronic world of pictures and sounds, can the written word have the same power with which we once invested it? In saying this, I do not mean to imply that written law is more civilized than oral law. Only that they represent different conceptions of social constraint and obligation, separated from each other by the metaphysics of two modes of communication.

A society in which sacred knowledge is codified in complex pictographs to which few has access develops different religious sentiments and institutions from those of a society whose sacred knowledge is codified in an alphabet to which many have access. And, of course, a society in which television is used does not have sacred knowledge at all. For sacred knowledge implies monopolistic knowledge, esoteric knowledge, mystical knowledge, hierarchical knowledge. Television, by its nature, implacably opposes such a conception.

In an information environment with television at the center, there can be no kabalas and few state secrets. Have we not become accustomed to the unholy spectacle of parish priests instructing the Pope in the ways of both God and man? And is it not so that two of our recent presidents suffered the unexpected indignity of having to flee their office because they could not control the privacy and movement of information? The electric plug is more than a hole in the wall. It is the entrance through which an entire population penetrates secret chambers.

Moreover, it is obvious that in a culture where information is shared in face-to-face contexts, is moved slowly, and is sluggishly disseminated, there will not be a knowledge explosion. But it is equally obvious that where information is codified in electronic impulses and moved at the speed of light, there must be a knowledge explosion. Is it any wonder that Socrates believed that all useful knowledge must be drawn from inside us?--for that is where speech itself comes from. And that we believe that all useful knowledge must come from outside us?--for our media are not part of us but external to us. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates said. "The unexamined world is not worth living in," we reply. The very definition of knowledge in any era is a function of the form, magnitude, speed, direction, and accessibility of information.

Similarly, political ideas are a function of information patterns. Thomas Jefferson wondered why the Athenians to whom we are indebted for the creation of democracy did not also conceive of the idea of representative government. That the will of an individual could be expressed indirectly and abstractly through an elected official made no sense in Athens. It seemed perfectly obvious in Monticello. Such a difference in outlook can be accounted for by our remembering that the oral dialectic, by its nature, is concerned with individual action and feeling. It always involves personal contact and immediate response. On the other hand, the written word, as Innis remarks of the newspaper, addresses the world, not the individual. A reading person will accept abstract, indirect government. A dialectic person will not even imagine it.

I realize I am on the verge of committing the fallacy of reductionism, for I feel the strongest impulse to say that the structure of information can account for anything that occurs in a culture. But this would be nonsense. Instead, I will settle for this view of the matter: The dominant patterns of information within a culture-the codes, the materials, the styles of interaction they require-form a substantial part of the "genes" of a culture. Like genes, information patterns produce in mysterious ways the general features of a culture, and in something approximating a predictable pattern. Like genes, information patterns are powerful but not entirely resistant to modification (or what's education for?). And like genes, information patterns do their work invisibly. We scarcely know they are there until a mutation occurs. It is only when a culture has undergone a restructuring of its information patterns that we can see on what its intellectual and social biases previously rested.

Isaac Taylor, for example, in his great work, The History of the Alphabet, has shown how the change in the form of writing--from ideograph to alphabet--made information available to people to whom it had previously been denied. Thus, not only did both religion and science fall out of the exclusive control of the priestly class but the gap between rulers and ruled diminished. Both Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have shown how the invention of the mechanical clock, by totally reconstructing our image of time and space, laid the foundation of all modern forms of social organization. A sundial does not give you the same information as does a mechanical clock. The difference in their level of abstraction, their precision, and the context in which the information becomes accessible gave us a new metaphor for the universe. The precise segmenting of time in a transportable form makes possible, and urgent, the question, "Exactly what time is it?" For time-keeping, as Mumford tells us, "passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing. Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions." By separating time from human events, the clock helped us to conceive of an independent world of measurable sequences: that is, the world as modern science conceives of it.

We are people of the clock, as we have been people of the printed page. But to appreciate what we were like before the printed page, one must read a book such as The Bias of Communication by Harold Innis, in which he shows how print altered almost every conceivable facet of social, political, and economic life. He argues, for example, that the printing press undermined the information monopoly of the Catholic Church, not only by making the Word of God accessible to large numbers of people but by moving it with unprecedented speed throughout Germany, and then the rest of Europe. He has also shown how print, by isolating the reader and his responses, created a psychological context which fostered the growth of modern forms of capitalism. And Phillipe Aries in his Centuries of Childhood has suggested, by implication, an additional and astonishing effect of the printing press: The rapid buildup and movement of secular information made possible by print not only created the modern concept of education but, in so doing, created the modern concept of childhood itself.

All of these revolutionary changes in the structure of society were precipitated, at least to a significant extent, by mutations in the structure of information. Change the form of information, or its quantity, or speed, or direction, or accessibility, and some monopoly will be broken, some ideology threatened, some pattern of authority will find itself without a foundation. We might say that the most potent revolutionaries are those people who invent new media of communication, although typically they are not aware of what they are doing. When Gutenberg announced that he could manufacture books, as he put it, "without the help of reed, stylus, or pen but by wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types," he could scarcely imagine that he had just become the most important political and social troublemaker of the Second Millennium. Unless that dubious title be given to Professor Samuel Morse who, in sparking the electronic revolution under whose conditions we must now live, at least had the good grace to wonder, What hath God wrought? Well, God hath wrought plenty, and, although there is no Plato anywhere in sight to help us find the answer to Morse's question, we are obliged for our own sakes, if not God's, to pursue the matter with the utmost vigor and attention.

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was an American critic and educator. Postman was the Paulette Goddard Chair of Media Ecology at New York University and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication. His pedagogical and scholarly interests included media and education, as can be seen in many of his seventeen books, including Amusing Ourselves to Death (19.85), Conscientious Objections (1988), Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), and End of Education (1995). Postman was the editor of ETC from 1976-1986.

This article first appeared in Volume 36, Number Three. Fall 1979.
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Author:Postman, Neil
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
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Date:Oct 1, 2013
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