How To Use Technology—Not Be Used By It

Is personal music worth encasing yourself in a private closet of sound? (cc image courtesy of Cristiano Betta via Flickr).

As technology plays an ever-increasing role in our daily lives, we must ask ourselves: How can we use it well rather than be used by it?

In a lecture entitled “Five Things We Need To Know About Technological Change,” author and cultural critic Neil Postman gives five characteristics of technology that he thinks form a framework for thinking about technology.

What is the benefit of such a framework? Postman says, “If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.

Postman’s Five Points:

  • 1. Technology Is Always a Mixed Blessing
    For every advantage technology provides, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Technology is not an unmixed blessing. Think, for instance, of the automobile. For all its obvious advantages it has contributed to air pollution, changed the beauty of the natural landscape, and created traffic and noise pollution in our cities. Another example is air conditioning. As refreshing as it can be to step inside an air conditioned room on a hot summer day, before there was air conditioning people used to seek relief from the heat as a community in common gathering spaces like shaded parks, river banks, or lakes. “Perhaps the best way I can express this idea,” Postman writes, “is to say that the question, ‘What will a new technology do?’ is no more important than the question, ‘What will a new technology undo?’”
  • 2. Technology Creates Winners and Losers
    “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,” Postman writes. “[Imagine] some turn-of-the-century blacksmith who not only is singing the praises of the automobile but who also believes that his business will be enhanced by it. We know now that his business was not enhanced by it; it was rendered obsolete by it, as perhaps an intelligent blacksmith would have known…. The questions, then, that are never far from the mind of a person who is knowledgeable about technological change are these: Who specifically benefits from the development of a new technology? Which groups, what type of person, what kind of industry will be favored? And, of course, which groups of people will thereby be harmed?”
  • 3. Technology Contains a Message
    Postman writes, “Embedded in every piece of technology there is a powerful idea.” Every technology rises out of a worldview and carries that worldview embedded in it. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Is the embedded message in a text message that brief lines of text will suffice for communication? Do the ubiquitous personal mp3 music players on college campuses signify that sensory stimulation is worth isolating oneself? “The third idea,” writes Postman, “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.”
  • 4. Technology is Not Additive, but is “Ecological”
    Postman explains this point by using 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. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.”
  • 5. Technology Tends to Become “Mythic”
    When Postman uses the term “mythic” to describe technology he means that it tends to be accepted as an eternal and unquestioned part of the cultural landscape. Postman writes, “I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. 

    “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control. If you should propose to the average American that television broadcasting should not begin until five PM and should cease at eleven PM, or propose that there should be no television commercials, he will think the idea ridiculous. But not because he disagrees with your cultural agenda. He will think it ridiculous because he assumes you are proposing that something in nature be changed; as if you are suggesting that the sun should rise at ten AM instead of at six.”

 

Comments

  1. I’ve always found Neil Postman to be prophetic; his wisdom lives on after him.

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