Building A Bridge To The 18th Century

ISBN: 0375701273

First, I must admit that I’m a fan of Neil Postman, the late American cultural thinker. I recommend his book Amusing Ourselves To Death if you want to understand the effects that technology has on humanity (for a shorter synopsis of that book, check out his speech here). Similar ideas can also be found in the great documentary Connections by James Burke.

What I wanted to know is how to solve the problems that we face from blindly adopting technology. Postman suggests that we should borrow the 18th Century way of thinking from the Enlightenment in order to navigate our modern times (the century of Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, Hume, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin). He briefly goes over their philosophies and how we can adopt their way of thinking.

One of the most important points Postman makes is that modern man has lost a purposeful narrative of religion. The narrative that has replaced it is using technology and being satisfied with one’s consumer products.

…when people do not have a satisfactory narrative to generate a sense of purpose and continuity, a kind of psychic disorientation takes hold, followed by a frantic search for something to believe in or, probably worse, a resigned conclusion that there is nothing to find.


I write for those who are still searching for a way to confront the future, a way that faces reality as it is, that is connected to a humane tradition, that provides sane authority and meaningful purpose.

But attempts at constructing a narrative won’t work, because…

There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

The 18th Century marked the beginning of the modern world, not unlike how the Ancient Greeks marked the beginning of the Western world. In fact, the Englightenment was partially due to a re-discovering of the Ancient Greek writing. All the founding fathers of America studied them, and used those ideas to birth America. But how many American men study the Ancient Greeks today?

Today’s society has been taken over by a zombie march of progress instead of the accumulation of wisdom. This idea of progress is relatively new. In the past, science was a pursuit of truth, without any immediate applications, but now everything must be done to make humans happy or improve their standard of living (i.e., bombard their senses with cheap and accessible entertainment and feed them with subsidized corn and sugar).

The eighteenth century invented [the idea of progress], elaborated it, and promoted it, and in so doing generated vast resources of vitality, confidence, and hope. But the eighteenth century also criticized and doubted it, initiating powerful arguments about its limitations and pitfalls.

These limitations and pitfalls are rarely discussed today. 3D movies are progress. Internet is progress. Porn-on-demand is progress. Google Glass is progress. And so on. A cultural obsession with progress results in spiritual emptiness and a confused people. Progress has replaced god.

We can get a clear idea of the seriousness and skepticism with which European intellectuals regarded technological progress by reading a letter Lord Byron sent prior to a speech he gave to the House of Lords early in the nineteenth century. The letter summarizes his speech. He spoke against a proposed law which would apply the death penalty to anyone deliberately breaking a machine, as those people called “Luddites” were in the habit of doing. Byron tried to show how the rise of factories made workers useless and desperate, and how their way of life was being destroyed. Byron was not a Luddite himself, and, in fact, understood the advantages of mechanized progress. But he saw in such progress a tainted bargain—economic growth on one hand, the loss of self-respect and community vitality on the other. (The law was passed, with only three votes against it.)

Postman gives us the intellectual tools to question today’s technology:

The most obvious question to be asked about any new technology—for example, interactive television, virtual reality, the Internet, or, for that matter, doorknobs and toasters that “understand” human speech—is, What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?


What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem? The automobile solved some very important problems for most people, but in doing so, poisoned our air, choked our cities with traffic, and contributed toward the destruction of some of the beauty of our natural landscape. Antibiotics certainly solved some significant problems for almost all people, but in doing so, resulted in the weakening of what we call our immune systems. Television solved several important problems, but in solving them changed the nature of political discourse, led to a serious decline in literacy, and quite possibly made the traditional process of socializing children impossible.


What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change? This question needs to be asked because significant technological change always results in a realignment of power.


…I find it useful to ask of any technology that is marketed as indispensable, What problem does it solve for me? Will its advantages outweigh its disadvantages? Will it alter my habits and language, and if so, for better or for worse


I will use technology when I judge it to be in my favor to do so.

We’ve reached a point where the newest technology hype coming out of Silicon Valley offers only marginal benefits to our lives. Having an app that reserves a restaurant in 10 seconds is handy, but calling to make a reservation isn’t particularly burdensome. Everyone is quick to look at the benefits that such technologies give, but what do we lose from them? Do we lose the basic ability to communicate with other people? Of having empathy and patience for our fellow man?

Postman also understands information is not knowledge, and that it’s possible to have tons of information but stupid citizens who don’t understand the political process that dominates them.

…the concept of “information” was different from what it is today. Information was not thought of as a commodity to be bought and sold. It had no separate existence, as it does in our age; specifically, it was not thought to be worthwhile unless it was embedded in a context, unless it gave shape, texture, or authority to a political, social, or scientific concept, which itself was required to fit into some world-view. No one was ridiculed more in the eighteenth century, especially by Jonathan Swift, than the pedant, the person who collected information without purpose, without connection to social life…


The problem addressed in the nineteenth century was how to get more information to more people, faster, and in more diverse forms. For 150 years, humanity has worked with stunning ingenuity to solve this problem. The good news is that we have. The bad news is that, in solving it, we have created another problem, never before experienced: information glut, information as garbage, information divorced from purpose and even meaning.

There is no problem caused in today’s society by a lack of information. Bad education is not caused by lack of information. Neither is crime, world hunger, or wars. Information without context is useless; it’s mere trivia.

It is also assumed that, as we proceed into a postmodern world, we are bereft of a narrative that can provide courage and optimism; that we are facing what Vaçlav Havel and others have called “a crisis in narrative.” Old gods have fallen, either wounded or dead. New ones have been aborted. “We are looking,” he said, “for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, new control systems, new institutions.” In other words, we seek new narratives to provide us with “an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archtypical wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith.”8 No one must underestimate the difficulties in this.

And so what narrative have guys like me sought out? Tradition, masculinity, strength, conquest, hard-work. Technology doesn’t fill a man’s spirit, and neither does information. Like Postman, I have looked to the past for answers that can give me meaning today, because I know that consumer messages or new technology don’t have the answer.

There is very little the culture wants to do for children except to make them into consumers. A child is someone who has money to buy things. An adult is someone who has more money to buy things.


The whole idea of schooling, now, is to prepare the young for competent entry into the economic life of a community so that they will continue to be devoted consumers.


The average American graduate student cannot tell you, given a thousand-year margin of error, when the alphabet was invented, or, given a two-hundred-year margin of error, when the printing press with movable type was invented, let alone say anything intelligible about the psychological or social implications of those inventions. To think that these are the people to whom we will entrust the uses of the information superhighway would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.


…the structure and authority of the family have been severely weakened as parents have lost control over the information environment of the young.

In the end, Postman argues that education has failed to teach reason and skepticism, two prime qualities of the Enlightenment. At the same time, having educated minds is a nation’s best resource, creating citizens who can doubt authority and identify propaganda that hurts the nation. But we no longer aim to create this type of society in America. Instead, we give a tiny elite a proper education while the rest are reduced to the learning of facts and obedience. Let them have iPhones!

This book brought up a lot of good points, but it did meander at times. It’d be best if you read Amusing Ourselves To Death first. Unless you love that volume, you may not get too much value from this Postman offering.

Read More: “Building A Bridge To The 18th Century” on Amazon

35 thoughts on “Building A Bridge To The 18th Century”

  1. School, e.g., k – 12 along with college, installed a lot of facts and misinformation inside my head, but if it was wisdom I sought, off campus is where I was forced to travel.

  2. I’ve said it before on this site, but brave new world is our future, whether we like it or not. I may be studying engineering, but an engineer needs to know humanity as much as progress. As technology advances, we lose that humanity.
    Many people in today’s world seek efficiency and money over humanity. We’d faster sell out our common man than give him some slack. Think about how scum like Madoff come into existence–on the backs of men. What makes an alpha true is his ability to understand, study man, and be willing to extend a just arm to help him.
    It’s another reason I can’t stand these scum movements like the gay marriage fiasco, feminism. They don’t care about their movement many of them–they’re just cogs in the machine. What they care about most is dollars. That’s what technology can make us: greedy, narcissistic bastards.

    1. “What makes an alpha true is his ability to understand, study man, and be willing to extend a just arm to help him.”
      And then maybe the next day stick a spear in his back and have him for dinner.
      There was never some golden age when men were one, big happy group hug of a family. The quest for, and use of, power has remained essentially the same “forever.” Money, like the spear, is one of the tools; not the cause.
      The cause is essentially rutting. Was the Trojan War about money?
      No. It was one big, cluster fuck of a Let’s You and Him Fight.

      1. The Trojan war was all about money, just a different type of money. Prestige is today’s money. Alphas gain prestige by being alphas. Betas gain prestige through wealth/earning it. While an alphas prestige is earned and long lasting, a beta’s prestige can be gone at the drop of a hat.

        1. In which case cyanobacteria are all about money.
          Definitions matter. Otherwise what we say is meaningless, the chatter of monkeys, said mainly to make noise and appear to be saying something worth listening to.
          Step off the postmodernist bandwagon. As it leads everywhere at random, it leads nowhere in particular. Study classical rhetoric, beginning with the Socratic Dialogues.

    2. “”What makes an alpha true is his ability to understand, study man, and be willing to extend a just arm to help him.”
      I noticed that many people take their beliefs to construct their own notion of an alpha male, to then advertize it as the objective alpha male.
      An alpha is an alpha. It is possible to be generous, helpful *and* alpha but it isn’t what makes an alpha.

      1. It’s what separates the sheep from the goats. An alpha is everything a beta is not. An alphas prestige is earned through his character, not his bank account. You know what an alpha looks like, just hard to describe.
        Sure, it may be my definition of alpha, but don’t we all have our own definition? A man of character does all the things I describe above, but it alone doesn’t distinguish an alpha from a a beta. An alpha is the opposite of a beta.

        1. “You know what an alpha looks like, just hard to describe.”
          How an alpha looks like depends on your idea of one.
          “don’t we all have our own definition?”
          Sure we do, but to be objective one shouldn’t broadcast his definition as the only one.
          “A man of character does all the things I describe above”
          Most of it, but not everything.
          A man of character doesn’t necessarily “extend his arm to help his fellow”, some of them can be the most selfish people you’ll ever meet.

    3. What I see forming is more like a perverse amalgam of the worst aspects of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Of course we have the homogenization of the populace, high-tech hedonism and abandonment of sexual mores as featured in the former. But absent from BNW was the profound material deprivation of the vast majority, the sheer animal brutality of the overclass, and of course the Thought Police (in our case the P.C. mafia).
      I’ve long contended that only a pampered, privileged, effete priss such as Huxley would see the future he envisioned as something so abhorrent. It doesn’t sound like such a terrible deal to me . . .

  3. I love technology. Even though I have to work with smelly H1B’s at Qualcomm, playing around with computers is fun.
    However, I like to get outdoors, sunbathe naked and meet real, masculine men. If any of you are ever in SD, head out to Blacks beach and look for the guy smoking a cig with the Beemer and football. That’d be me.

    1. How do you get a Beemer onto Black’s Beach? It is a 300 foot vertical climb down from the nearest road as far as I know 🙂

    2. OK this is the real Steve Wytyshyn. Very funny guys, post all over the internet homosexual comments as if they are written by me when it’s well know that I’m super straight. When I find out who is doing this I going to ram my red hot poker so far up your punk ass your head will explode. It’s well know at Blacks Beach that I keep the homos in line so this is just a way to get back at me. God I hate fags.

  4. If you study American society this is one of the first books that comes up. If you are going to review a book that is so well known, at least come up with an unique angle.

  5. ”Instead, we give a tiny elite a proper education while the rest are reduced to the learning of facts and obedience.” This was actually what I thought in my freshmen year. People nowadays think that they are special when they go to college. No, we are not special. We are all exchangeable and insignificant for the system – we are ”bulk goods” and the only ones that benefit from this are banks by giving loans to students.
    People, look at how different College was a hundred years ago and see the big difference.

    1. There’s a phrase for this that describes an entire subculture of education: buffet intellectualism …

  6. All that is solid has already melted into air.
    The truth of the world traveller is that the smell of progress is indistinguishable from petrol vapour.
    Perhaps you have experienced this, yes?

  7. “Progress replaced god.” That’s why god gave us a brain and an earth that contains an unlimited number of resources. He put all this stuff here so that we could find and figure out what we could do with it. I believe god likes progress because it means the things he created are utilizing the things he has given us (our brains, the earth, metal, electricity). With all the things that he aloted us he must want us to use it. Otherwise what would be the point of finding all these materials on earth and even having a brain that lets you think and hands that let you create.

  8. Education is failing men because education is dominated by women. I’m not saying women are bad teachers but boys needs are different from girls so a male educator is necessary.

  9. Nassim Nicholas Taleb complains about the cultural illiteracy of what he calls “technothinkers” here:

    After I left finance, I started attending some of the fashionable conferences attended by pre-rich and post-rich technology people and the new category of technology intellectuals. I was initially exhilarated to see them wearing no ties, as, living among tie-wearing abhorrent bankers, I had developed the illusion that anyone who doesn’t wear a tie was not an empty suit. But these conferences, while colorful and slick with computerized images and fancy animations, felt depressing. I knew I did not belong. It was not just their additive approach to the future (failure to subtract the fragile rather than add to destiny). It was not entirely their blindness by uncompromising neomania. It took a while for me to realize the reason: a profound lack of elegance. Technothinkers tend to have an “engineering mind” — to put it less politely, they have autistic tendencies. While they don’t usually wear ties, these types tend, of course, to exhibit all the textbook characteristics of nerdiness — mostly lack of charm, interest in objects instead of persons, causing them to neglect their looks. They love precision at the expense of applicability. And they typically share an absence of literary culture.
    This absence of literary culture is actually a marker of future blindness because it is usually accompanied by a denigration of history, a byproduct of unconditional neomania. Outside of the niche and isolated genre of science fiction, literature is about the past. We do not learn physics or biology from medieval textbooks, but we still read Homer, Plato, or the very modern Shakespeare. We cannot talk about sculpture without knowledge of the works of Phidias, Michelangelo, or the great Canova. These are in the past, not in the future. Just by setting foot into a museum, the aesthetically-minded person is connecting with the elders. Whether overtly or not, he will tend to acquire and respect historical knowledge, even if it is to reject it. And the past — properly handled — is a much better teacher about the properties of the future than the present. To understand the future, you do not need techno-autistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.

    I don’t necessarily agree with Taleb’s observation, when you consider the kinds of fiction writers “technothinkers” tend to like. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example. taught Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Oxford. Isaac Asimov used Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an inspiration for his Foundation novels, and he also wrote nonfiction works on history and classic literature. Robert Heinlein wrote that education requires the combination of knowledge in mathematics, history and languages. Many other science fiction and fantasy writers also showed high levels of cultural sophistication.
    Perhaps these writers’ examples don’t always transfer an enthusiasm for literary cultivation to their fans, but you can’t deny that they show a greater than average awareness of history and tradition than usual.

    1. It seems to me quite telling that, of all the authors “technothinkers” tend to like (as you observe), none find the Enlightenment an unqualified success. Tolkien very much preferred Heroic literature; Gibbon was a product of the Renaissance; Heinlein’s view on what education requires resembles (to some extent) the Seven Liberal Arts – again the product of the Renaissance (and could be traced further back into the High Middle Age).
      I am in no position to draw any informative conclusion based on this cursory observation of mine (which might turn out to be misguided – I really don’t know), but it nonetheless seems a promising line of thought that is worth pursuing.

  10. I read ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ five or six years back, and it greatly influenced me. Over time, it inspired me to streamline my use of media, and to focus on person-to-person contact where possible. For instance, I have a firm policy to never have more than two browser tabs open at once, I am not online when speaking on the telephone (unless circumstances compel it), and I try to be very deliberate about what I am doing, so I don’t get sucked into pointless web surfing.
    Michael Crichton had a wonderful quote on this topic: “Problems of too many choices and information overload are symptoms of a problem: That we, as a society, have failed to institute procedures to manage information. Confusion is not inevitable. It is aided by this societal failure.” -November 2006.
    I classify info into Class A, B, C, and D, with A being vital data (health and work info), and D being outright spam (sports, celebrity gossip, pop politics, etc.)

  11. Here’s a damn appropriate sketch of from SNL that has also a profound message about America today! Fucking brilliant!

  12. Its true that a lot of the recent technology coming out of silicon valley these days is quite trivial. However, there are advances coming in the next few decades that will offer true benefits.
    It is increasingly likely we’ll get fusion power by the next decade. There are at least 5 serious start-ups working to commercialize fusion. This is enough that one of them is likely to succeed.
    The second is new manufacturing technologies such as 3-D printing, followed by industrial nanotechnology. This may bring the information technology revolution to manufactured goods.
    Lastly is the biggest, which is curing of aging for biological immortality.
    These are REAL advances, with positive benefits, unlike the vapid stuff coming out of silicon valley these days.

    1. There will surely be some positive advances in the coming years, but I don’t see the great benefits materializing.
      Fusion would be great, but we already have nuclear energy that has become increasingly safe, “green” and cost-effective, yet for political reasons it’s not our primary energy source. 3-D printing could be big, but then what happens to the hundreds of millions of 3rd world peasants who manufacture the stuff now? Another world war maybe? Keep dreaming about immortality, I think this ties in directly to the major point of the article in that progress has replaced God. Humans are much more adept at perfecting Genocide than large-scale, peaceful and beneficial progress. What it all comes down to is money. Even if long-term life extension (if not mortality) is possible, it’ll be such a niche market, while selling entertainment devices/surveillance equipment to millions of people is and will be more lucrative.

      1. Fusion will be better than fission because the powerplants will be smaller (around 100MW) and, hence, more decentralized.
        The manufacturing revolution (3D printing, nanotechnology) because it will make it easier for those who are suitably motivated to go out on their own and “decouple” from the existing system. Again this favors decentralization as well.
        Biological immortality is a real prospect. This may be realizable from home-based labs (microfluidics based laboratory instrumentation and apparatus) by the 30’s. Again, this favors decentralization as well.
        BTW, consider transhumanism as essentially a DIY version of religion. Why rely on any god to do anything when we can do it ourselves?
        I think this ties in directly to the major point of the article in that progress has replaced God.
        Of course. Intelligent, competent people have no need to believe in that which is external to their own dreams and goals. This is a tautology.

  13. One very important point Postman makes in Amusing Ourselves to Death is that we seem to be moving backwards from a word- and narrative-based civilization back towards an image-based one, which Postman finds inferior in many crucial ways.

  14. The challenge we face truly is a philosophic one. The problem is 18th century scientism and skepticism lead to both materialism and nihilism and you can’t “progress” your way out of those. You have to think and study and learn and then, make a choice about what to believe. But not everyone will agree with your choice and many turn their choice into dogma and fight you over your choice and most will throw up their hands in despair proclaiming, “Who’s to judge? No one can say for sure who is right and who is wrong.” In the end, the enlightenment leads to mere facts at the expense of truth.
    At least, that’s my opinion. You have your opinion and I have mine. Who’s to say who’s right? Certainly not me or thee!
    Can’t we all just get along?
    Hands up! Don’t shoot the gentle giant!
    The prophet has been avenged!
    You can’t win a religious war with secularism. Secularism never inspired anyone.

  15. So the public must learn this contextless piece of information for “smart” brownie points? Doesn’t this contradict the point of you’re article?:
    “…when the alphabet was invented, or…when the printing press with movable type was invented”
    I’m nitpicking. I liked your article. The internet itself drowns you in non personally relevant information. That’s why I try to limit even my manosphere consumption to inspiring, self improvement or thought pieces.
    “The pressure project podcast” is inspiring.

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