Neil Postman was one of those writers/educators that I ran into at the right time…at just the time I needed some influencing. I didn’t run into him literally; I ran into him literarily—I found his books: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, The End of Education, and others. I was a young grad student at U of L…passionate to be a good teacher, a life-changing teacher. Postman gave me a lot to think about. I didn’t buy everything he was selling, but I bought enough to know that he and I were kindred spirits in a way—we were going to question everything.
In March 1998, Postman presented “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” at a conference in Colorado. I wasn’t there…but I was with him all the way. Even though he penned and voiced these words some 14 years ago, we need to hear them again. Below, I’ve pulled out his five main ideas, in his own words. At the end, there is a link to the full text of his presentation…in case you want to go deeper, in case you want to enjoy his delightful examples and anecdotes. Here are the Five Things in Postman's own words:
First,…all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. …Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.
Second,…the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others. There are even some who are not affected at all. …That there are always winners and losers in technological change is the second idea.
Third,…embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences. …The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
Fourth,…technological change is not additive; it is ecological. I can explain this best by an analogy. What happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything.
Fifth, …media tend to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word "myth" to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. …What I am saying is that our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.
And Postman’s closing words: “Our unspoken slogan has been "technology über alles," and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it.”
I wonder about our world as we rush forward with new technological advances without even thinking to ask, “What will be the results?” “What could be some consequences?” It came home to me just yesterday as I sat in a doctor’s office. In one corner, there were the three children fighting over their mom’s smart phone. Then, there was the child in her mother’s lap beside me was watching a show on the TV about the effect of TV on children. The reporter on the tele was saying that children under age 12 should not have televisions in their bedrooms. The six-year-old girl looked up at her mom and whispered, “She’s stupid…isn’t that dumb?” And they both just smiled….
(revised Oct. 16, 2019)
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