Technology 101–Neil Postman

It’s easy to get confused about what’s happening all around us as technology advances so rapidly.  If one tries to read Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology, for example, one may not understand everything that is contained there, with its many conceptual twists and turns and heavy peppering of neologisms. But this is not the case with this presentation, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”.

Idea One is technology as Faustian bargain.  This is easy to grasp, but as Postman avers, it’s really quite surprising how many people treat the advanced technologies as unmixed blessings.  “What will a new technology do?” becomes counterposed to “What will a new technology undo?” Postman brings our attention to the cost-benefit analysis.

Then he moves to idea number two, which is that benefits brought about by the new technolgies are unequally distributed.  Who benefits?  In the case of the computer, the obvious recipients of benefits are the large corporations.  The PC revolution of the 1970s made it seem for a time that the private individual could share in this boon which up till that time seemed to be the sole province of large-scale industry.  The World at One’s Fingertips for Everyman and Everywoman.   But even in 1998, when Postman delivered this lecture, he realized the downsides:  “But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people?  To steel workers, vegetable store owners, automobile mechanics, musicians…[t]hese people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions.  The are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them.  They are more than ever reduced to numerical objects…[t]hese people are losers in the great computer revolution, the winners, which include among others computer companies, multinational corporations and the nation-state, will, of course, encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology.  That is the way of winners, and so in the beginning they told the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists.  Then they told them that computers will make it possible to vote at home, shop at home, get all the entertainment they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary.”

The third idea is perhaps Postman’s most interesting contribution.  Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea.  To a man with a computer, everything looks like information.  One is reminded of the old adage that information drives knowledge out of circulation.  And anyway, it’s all up in the cloud, why do I have to keep any of this stuff, trivial or profound, in my own brain?  “Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.”  In short, it encourages, nay, legislates, the kind of Weltanschauung which is appropriate to an authoritarian technocracy.  And this Weltanschauung is Positivism.  That which cannot be measured and observed and replicated experimentally does not count as knowledge, or even as valuable.  And what then of the inner person?

The fourth idea is that technological change is not additive, it is what Postman calls ecological.  It changes the basic fabric of the culture.  “In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have the old Europe plus the printing press.  You had a different Europe.”  Technological innovation pays no heed to its potential impact on the culture it is introduced into.  This idea is also found in technological skeptics such as Jacques Ellul.  Politics does not drive technology, culture does not drive technology, but the other way around.  It is a tsunami which orders whatever it can encompass to its specifications.  This includes the human heart, if it be docile enough to fail to find the will to preserve itself.  “Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century?  If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong.  The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey.  There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs.  Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests.”

We come to the fifth idea, that at a certain point in their penetration into the collective psyche, successful technologics become mythic.  As a myth, it becomes enmeshed into the basic order of things, from the point of view of the user.  Postman cites an example from his pedagogical experience.  He asked his students if they knew when the alphabet was invented.  The question “astonished them.  It was as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented.”  Postman died before the advent of the so-called smartphone.  But he anticipated the attitude people have about this technology.  Not so much that people can’t believe it was never there, but that it’s been there for some period of time which makes it seem like it has an enduring presence, as if it were around for a hundred years.  People seem to forget that it has only been 12 short years since the introduction of the smartphone into Western society.  “What I am saying is that our enthusiasm can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its benificence can be a false absolute.”  Witness the widespread disbelief in these last years at the revelations of Edward Snowden and the sudden dawning on the psyche of the somnambulist that “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend”, as even many principal players in the technological revolution, Tristan Harris and his confreres, began to warn of the excesses inherent in the smartphone and the internet.  But this state of affairs was apparent 80 years ago with the introduction of television, if not before.  I have written in this blog of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which was published in 1872, in which he warned of the rise of the potentially conscious machine.  One hundred and forty-seven years ago.

Then Postman sums up his short talk with a clarity that is apparent throughout his presentation.  First idea:  “The greater the technology, the greater the price.” Second idea:  “There are always winners and losers.”  Third idea: “There is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice.”  Fourth, “Technology is ecological, which means, it changes everything.”  And fifth, “Technology tends to become mythic, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”  He closes with that same idea that Herbert Marcuse expresses in his seminal essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”, written 57 years before Postman’s talk: “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.”

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