Neil Postman's Dystopia Arrives (2007)

Twelve hundred years ago, the philosopher Hesiod had a few things to say about the kids of his time. “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint.”

There’s probably never been a time when experts weren’t decrying the sorry state of youth. Every decade or two, respectable commentators find some new assault on pink-cheeked innocents: Reefer in the thirties and forties, comic books and rock ‘n’ roll in the fifties. In the sixties, a whole range of hippie horrors threatened to turn a wide swath of boomer kids into long-haired, sexually promiscuous nihilists. And those were the good kids. The bad ones were already Godless, pot-smoking commies.

In the seventies and beyond, a new suspect entered into the equation. Television was nailed as a scourge of young minds, a perception that was hardly softened by numerous studies that found a correlation between children’s exposure to TV viewing and violent behaviour.

It’s fairly easy to condemn the boob tube as a one-eyed monster, a plague upon our cable-ready houses, and leave it at that. But instead of cursing the medium we’re adrift upon, it’s probably more helpful to sit down and figure out which way the wind is blowing. And there is no better guide to our present course than the late Neil Postman.

The question of childhood and information technologies was of great interest to Postman, author of the seminal work
Amusing Ourselves to Death. I met the media theorist shortly before his death in 2003. In his gravelly Brooklyn accent – he sounded something like a Mel Blanc character – Postman told me the work he was most proud of was The Disappearance of Childhood (1982). He felt it had stood the test of time. Reissued in 1992 with a new introduction, the book has indeed held up well.

Now is a good time to take a look back at Postman’s most prescient work, a quarter of a century after its publication. The author held that childhood, as it is commonly understood, is disappearing, in large part because parents have lost control of the information environment in which their children are raised. The flip-side is that adults are becoming increasingly juvenilized through mass media. The distinction between generations is collapsing, Postman believed.

Childhood is mostly a social construct, the author insisted. It existed among the ancient Greeks and other civilizations, but it altogether vanished during the Dark Ages. When literacy disappeared, along with education, childhood followed. Children came to be regarded as adults in miniature, an attitude echoed in the medieval paintings where infants look like dour midgets.

“Childhood” returned around the time of the printing press, which is not accidental, according to Postman. With the increased availability of printed texts, growing numbers of professions required literate workers. This requirement set a clearly defined boundary between those with access to adult information and those without. Children had to learn to read to gain this access. Thus, schools were necessary. As society became more complex and interdependent, the onset of adulthood retreated further into the future, bestowed only when one had acquired the mastery of a trade or earned a degree.

The first, fully-articulated viewpoint on childhood as a separate period of life, with its unique problems and needs, was expressed by Rousseau in the 18th century. The high-water mark of childhood came in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, when children became a class of society in their own right (although mostly without rights) and with their own games and stories.

It’s a novel idea that the resurgence in childhood arrived with the printing press and its social spin-offs. Postman drew much of his background material from Philippe Aries’ work
Centuries of Childhood (1962), which has since come under attack from scholars. Yet even if the first part of Postman’s thesis is proven to be shaky, the second part has plenty of supporting evidence from the past few decades. In the last half of his book, Postman argued that the distinction between children and adults began to erode with the vast, cross-cultural penetration of another image-based medium, television, which required no schooling to understand.

Television’s easy availability has resulted in a near-ubiquitous commodification of adult vices and desires, Postman noted. “One might say that the main difference between an adult and a child is that the adult knows about certain facets of life – its mysteries, its contradictions, its violence, its tragedies – that are not considered for children to know. As children move toward adulthood, we reveal these secrets to them in ways we believe they are prepared to manage. That is why there is such a thing as children’s literature.”

With its round-the-clock programming, the tube makes this arrangement impossible. “Television requires a constant supply of novel and interesting information to hold its audience,” he adds. “This means that all adult secrets – social, sexual, physical and the like – are revealed. Television forces the entire culture to come out of the closet and taps every existing taboo. Incest, divorce, promiscuity, corruption, adultery, sadism – each is now merely a theme for one or another television show. And, of course, in the process, each loses its role as an exclusively adult secret.”

The pattern, indicated by the author 25 years ago, is in clear outline now. Every week, the specialty channel Showcase features Friday Without Borders, complete with scenes of intercourse on shows celebrating the pornography industry. This is hardly softcore fare, even though the camera coyly pulls away from close-ups of penetration shots. Family Business, which stars pornographer “Seymore Butts,” presents the porn king and his mom as simply exploring a quirky lifestyle option, with lots of perks for the son.

Considering plenty of kids are up past 10 PM on weekends, and are old enough to handle a remote, you might wonder if we still live in a culture than cares remotely about maintaining adult secrets, or even a moral distinction between the world of children and adults. Of course, sexual content on the tube is still relatively limited. Not so with the unending gunplay and violence of television series. Neither with the rituals of humiliation and comeuppance on shows like The Apprentice and America’s Top Model. Nor with the lifestyle programs equating cosmetic surgery with inner transformation.

For all the media’s attention on the dangers to the young from the Internet, it’s no surprise we find little contemplation of TV’s excesses from within the medium itself. “You won’t believe how bad television is going to be in 10 years,” said poet Robert Bly in a 2004 interview with writer Michael Ventura. “You’re literally going to have to protect your children from it.”

Even family-friendly programming sends suspect messages. You only have to turn on the tube during prime time to witness a collapse of generational differences. On family sitcoms, kids are mostly precocious, world-weary founts of wisdom, while adults are presented as well-meaning but hapless buffoons, who are outclassed and outwitted by their fast-talking offspring. It’s Indigo Children From Hell. Wouldn’t be a bad name for a sitcom, come to think of it.

When broadcasting executives and advertisers are in a lofty frame of mind, they’ll say they are only holding up a mirror to society. In a more pragmatic mood, they will say they’re simply giving the people what they want. And there is undoubtedly a grain of truth in both claims. With the 13- to 16-year-old set commanding a bigger slice of the consumer economy, advertisers and producers know they can move the most Skittles with a zeitgeist that condescends to the viewing demographic. And there is always the opportunity to use younger viewers as little Trojan horses to raid the parental purse.

Initiative Media Worldwide spends billions of dollars annually, finding placement for its clients’ advertising. Its influential Nag Factor study was designed not to help parents cope with their children’s nagging, but to help corporations formulate their ads and promotions so that children would nag for their products more effectively. In the film The Corporation, Initiative’s grinning vice-president Lucy Hughes sprightly elaborated, “You can manipulate consumers into wanting, and therefore buying your products. It’s a game.”

If childhood is disappearing, why are marketers so interested in flogging products and services to a vanishing demographic? The way I see it, the increased targeting of the young by marketers in no way contradicts Postman; it’s entirely consistent with his thesis. The more we think of children in preliterate terms as little adults, the more inclined we are to expose them to forms of manipulation and deceit once limited to older consumers. And it’s no surprise that they respond enthusiastically to being rendered as presexualized hotties and embryonic megastars by advertisers and broadcasters.

Videos, DVDs and movies undoubtedly amplify this effect Postman discussed. The anti-computer author, who refused to get an email account, is on record as being something of a Luddite, almost reflexively so. No doubt Postman would have lumped the Internet in with these other media. Yet the latter’s involvement in the process of erasing child/adult distinctions is arguably more complex. Online games and videos push in one direction, blogs and text-based websites in another.

The flip side of Postman’s thesis is the increasing juvenilization of adults, a phenomenon that has gone turbo across North America in the past two decades. Twenty-somethings commonly live with their parents into their late twenties, and often have no idea of a life or career direction until well into their thirties. The pop-culture of superheroes and cartoon characters – once the sole preserve of comic books and Saturday morning TV – has expanded into adult film, television, videogames and even literature. Futurists call this “down-aging,” when adults nostalgic for their carefree childhood find comfort in pursuits and products from their youth.

The juvenilization of adults runs deeper than abbreviated job opportunities and an economy outsourced overseas. Read Postman and you start to see signs of big baby culture everywhere. On six o’clock news shows from Seattle and other urban centres in the US, local anchors talk slowly and deliberately, with the kind of up-tempo, singsong voice used by parents when they want to get their kids’ attention. Perhaps broadcasters know something most of us don’t about how linguistic patterns are changing. You may have noticed how often people in their twenties and thirties speak with a lilting inflection, with declarative statements rising at the end like interrogatives. This used to be a pattern of speaking limited to children and teenagers.

This social trend has a darkly comic dimension, recorded in recent expressions like “Permayouth,” coined for boomers attempting to stop the march of time through cosmetic surgery. Douglas Coupland calls this “Dorian Graying,” which he defines as the “… unwillingness to gracefully allow one’s body to show signs of aging.” But the body can’t be fooled; “boomeritis” is the description of injuries to older, amateur athletes who blow their knees playing ultimate frisbee, or otherwise hurting themselves playing something not designed for 40-plus bodies. Kids call snowboarding elders “grays on trays.”

As for fashion, there is increasingly less distinction between adult wear and kid’s clothing, summed up in the expressions “adultescent” and “babydults.” A recent Vancouver Sun feature profiled some local, hip parents with teenage interests and fashion sensibilities, who think of their kids as their friends. One suspects these sort of folks are immune to their children’s’ embarrassment and we all know nothing in the world turns red quite like a teen.

We no longer even find it noteworthy or strange that family members of disparate ages, who share a common enthusiasm for videogames, retreat to separate rooms to lose themselves in violent shoot ‘em ups drawn from the same programming code used for military training videos. This sort of thing is no longer shocking or even all that surprising. It’s simply part of the background noise in our culture. Like in the science fiction films where pod people replace the town residents, we are in danger of becoming a nation of “adultescents,” a one-size-fits-all demographic of narcissistic fashionistas.

Were he to be teleported into our time to view Showcase’s Friday Without Borders, Hesiod would probably throw up his hands, or just throw up. Neil Postman, who died in 2003, would probably just shrug and ask in his gravelly voice, “What did you expect?” The still active Robert Bly, who recently predicted that parents would have to protect their children from television in 10 years time, would probably apologize for his conservative time estimate.

Yet I suspect that, in spite of all the depredations of the media and the market on their inchoate psyches, it seems children can weather exposure to a wide range of psychic toxins, as long as they are raised with love and a sense of purpose. As for the decline in literacy, we need only witness the Harry Potter phenomenon to see how much children hunger for engaging literature that doesn’t talk down to them.

Let’s also not forget that teenagers have a preternatural talent for detecting and rejecting adult bullshit. Perhaps this will give a future generation some chance in rebuilding a society that currently confuses quiet compliance with critical thinking, empty gestures with principled stands, cynicism for sophistication and marketing with mentoring.

The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman described children as living messages sent to the future. What message are we sending, into what sort of future? Philosophers across the ages have decried how the young lack respect for their elders. Had any of them lived to witness the present world, would they conclude that today’s adults have earned it from the youth? I doubt it.

Geoff Olson