Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Future Sh(er)(l)ock

So, ok, maybe I overdid it with the poststructuralist style title for this post, with all those parentheses and all, but hey, I did publish an article about two decades ago with the title, Post(modern)man, about Neil Postman, a revised version of which appears in my book, On the Binding Biases of Time—and speaking of time, it's time for another plug:

So, now that we got that over with, what I want to relate is that while I was working on Amazing Ourselves to Death—oops, I think I feel another plug coming on...

So, as I was saying, while I was writing the book, I naturally went back over many of Postman's publications, including the often overlooked collection entitled Conscientious Objections—uh oh, here we go again:

Originally published in 1988, Conscientious Objections included one of Postman's most pointed critiques of the social and behavioral sciences and scientism, coupled together with an eloquent statement on the importance of media ecology, in the lead essay, entitled "Social Science as Moral Theology" (which alone is worth the price of the book). The subtitle, Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education provides a sense of the range of subject matter covered, including several essays that exhibit a general semantics orientation, including one on Alfred Korzybski.

Conscientious Objections also includes two essays that sum up the argument he makes in his two best known works critiquing the impact of television, The Disappearance of Childhood and Amusing Ourselves to Death (wait for it, wait for it, ok, here it comes)...

The first of the two essays in Conscientious Objections is entitled "The Disappearance of Childhood" which appropriately enough summarizes the book of the same title. But the other essay, the one that provides the gist of Amusing Ourselves to Death, is entitled "Future Shlock" (which may come as a bit of a shock to you, I know).  And of course, it is a play on the title of Alvin Toffler's popular book of 1970, Future Shock. You know what's coming next here, now, don't you?

If you're not familiar with the book, it's a bit of popular media ecology, one that struck me as very profound when I was in high school and an undergraduate in college. The phrase future shock was itself a play on the established notion of culture shock, with the idea that the rate of change had accelerated so drastically in the postwar era that we easily fall victim to a form of culture shock without leaving home, a kind of temporal culture shock, as we are unprepared for the pace of progress we have been undergoing, and have no defenses or means of coping with all of the change that we are experiencing.

Of course, you no doubt recall my post here on Blog Time Passing back in 2009, entitled, Shockingly, The Future Ain't What It Used To Be, which included a bit more discussion of future shock than I am including here. The reason I wrote that post was that I had discovered that a documentary that was made back in 1972, based on Future Shock, and featuring Orson Welles, had been uploaded to YouTube. The film provides an interesting window on what we were experiencing at that time, and where we thought we might be headed. It's a bit of nostalgia for those of us of a certain age, and certainly a period piece, but not without its relevance for the present day.

So, in doing this post, I went back to YouTube, which has changed its policies since 2009 regarding the length of videos it allows (certainly a significant contribution to information overload), and I was not terribly shocked to find the movie now available in one piece, instead of chopped up into five segments as it was back in 2009, which is how it appears on my earlier blog post. So, let me take this opportunity to embed the full film here and now, for your viewing pleasure:

But all of this is a digression, so let me also explain that I sometimes teach a course entitled Writing for Online Media for Fordham University's School of Professional and Continuing Studies, a course that counts towards the Professional Studies in New Media major, offered by the Professional Studies in New Media program that I am director of. In fact I'm just finishing up a summer session section of the course, taught as an online class. And I also teach a graduate version of the class, Writing for the Internet, for Fairleigh Dickinson University's MA Program in Media and Professional Communication (being offered this Fall semester). And one of the assignments I give my students is to make an edit to a Wikipedia entry, and then blog about it.

So, after rereading Postman's essay "Future Shlock"which begins with him making the claim to have coined the phrase future shock prior to Toffler's use of it (without, I hasten to add, making any judgment as to whether Toffler took it from him or came up with it independently), I decided to take a look at the Wikipedia entry on Future Shock. It includes a section with the heading "Term" which read as follows:

Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he popularized the term "information overload."
His analysis of the phenomenon of information overload is continued in his later publications, especially The Third Wave and Powershift.

Nothing wrong with that. But I decided to add the following immediately after:

In the introduction to an essay entitled "Future Shlock" in his book, Conscientious Objections, Neil Postman wrote: "Sometime about the middle of 1963, my colleague Charles Weingartner and I delivered in tandem an address to the National Council of Teachers of English. In that address we used the phrase "future shock" as a way of describing the social paralysis induced by rapid technological change. To my knowledge, Weingartner and I were the first people ever to use it in a public forum. Of course, neither Weingartner nor I had the brains to write a book called Future Shock, and all due credit goes to Alvin Toffler for having recognized a good phrase when one came along" (p. 162).
 I actually made this change on March 13, 2013, and checking on the entry now, I am pleased to report to you that the addition remains unchanged, with the sole exception that the quote from Conscientious Objections was separated out and turned into a block quote, a reasonable enough modification.

So, that's my bit of detective work, which I hope justifies my inclusion of Sherlock in the title, along with shock and shlock, and maybe it is a bit of shlocky sleuthing on my part, but I don't think there's any issue here that might require the services of some Future Shylock, do you?


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