The Neil Postman Award

I’m just back from the Media Ecology Association’s fifth convention, where I delivered what was, for me, a daring keynote challenging media ecologists to claim ‘money’ as a medium.

Media Ecologists believe that there’s no such thing as a value-neutral medium. TV, the Internet, and even cell phones each have various propensities and biases because of the way they work. The same must be true for money – particularly the kind of money we use here in the United States, which is created by fiat and costs interest to borrow. (There are many examples of currencies throughout history that have worked in other ways, with often better results.)

If true media literacy is the ability not only to read and interpret but to author in that medium, then we should engage in the creation of alternative, complementary currencies. Money needn’t only be understood as an economy – it could also be understood as an ecology.

So, I had a good time with that one, and then got a big surprise: in honor of Neil Postman (an amazing scholar and one of the founders of media-ecology) the association decided to create an award honoring someone whose work and life exemplified the values he lived by. And while I would have been delighted simply to have been one of the names that came to mind, I ended up winning the award – The Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity.

How much better does it get? Not much, really. I couldn’t think of an aspect of my career I’d want recognized more than that. It’s why I got involved in this whole writing thing, anyway: to participate in the great conversation, and encourage others to do so, too. And while I don’t know that I’m quite ready for any sort of lifetime achievement award, I can certainly use the encouragement to stay on such a course.

Neil was a student of Marshall McLuhan, and later said of him, “Marshall McLuhan liked me, but he wouldn’t have liked my books.”

Neil didn’t really like my books, either. Not the first ones, anyway. They were too optimistic and uncritical, in his opinion. But he did like Merchants of Cool and Coercion, ardent critic of electronic media that he was.

And while I may not share all of his trepidations about new media, I certainly see myself as a media theorist in the public service – doing whatever is necessary to raise the level of conversation, communication and, most of all, compassion. Without an occasional troupe of ready participants – of which I count anyone reading this post as a member – that wouldn’t be possible.