An E-Mail for the Ages
If you’re going to write only one e-mail in your life, you may as well make it good.
Neil Postman made the most of his one foray into cyberspace, a brilliant send-up of online communication. If only he had lived to see texting and Twitter.... But I suspect his message would be similar.
Postman co-founded the Media Ecology program at New York University. In 1997, he posted to the department’s listserve the following tongue-in-cheek smackdown channeling the ghost of his mentor and fellow media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Postman’s satire articulates a key insight of McLuhan and his son Eric, a tenet that we’d be wise to heed in this age of limitless digital communication.
Hear Now The Law
Neil Postman on Cyberspace
This is the Ghost of Marshall McLuhan speaking to you. I don’t have to tell you from what world I come. I am using Chris Nystrom's facility in order to reach you. I will say what I have to say only once. You will not hear from me again unless you persist in your foolishness.
Does the word “books” mean anything to you? Do you have so much time on your hands that you can afford to waste yourselves on this infernal machine? Have you already accumulated so much wisdom that you no longer need to read the best that has been thought and written? Is this the way you honor the work and life of my great friend and disciple, Neil Postman? Do any of you actually know how to spell?
I have now read all of your idiotic messages. Hear, now, The Law:
EVERY MEDIUM TAKEN TO ITS FURTHEST EXTENT FLIPS TO ITS OPPOSITE
Thus the written word, which is the source of all the intellect we have, when used in this unholy fashion becomes a medium for the expression of all our stupidities. This, you have demonstrated amply. Enough, I say.
I must now return from whence I came. Remember what happened to the Hebrews when they did not follow the Law.
Fun With Tetrads
The Law that Postman refers to is one of the four “Laws of Media” elucidated by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. In their book by that name, the McLuhans theorize that every human technology exhibits four specific dimensions, and thus can be best understood subjected to the following four questions:
What does it enhance?
What does it make obsolete?
What does it retrieve?
What does it reverse into when pushed to an extreme?
It’s the fourth of this “Tetrad” that Postman used to assert that the written word, the source of all wisdom, reverts into stupidity when pushed to extremes. A casual stroll through most Yahoo comment threads will bear this out.
Of course Postman’s example is tongue-in-cheek and not meant to be a definitive example of the Laws of Media. But the Tetrad is intended as a playful vehicle, and like much of the McLuhans’ work, a probe to spur thinking and yield surprising connections. The best way to understand the Tetrad is to read Laws of Media. A quicker way to understand the Tetrad is to read Andrew McLuhan’s excellent summary of it. I highly recommend both.
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