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Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change: A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Cautions and Considerations for Technological Change:
A Commentary on Neil Postman’s The Judgment of Thamus

Natalie Giesbrecht
ETEC 540
University of British Columbia
October 4, 2009

Introduction

Kurzweil (2001) suggests that nowadays there is a common expectation of “continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow” (para. 2). In “The Judgment of Thamus”, chapter one of Technopoly, Neil Postman (1992) cautions us of the implications of technological innovation. More specifically he warns us of the “one-eyed prophets” or Technophiles, “who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo” (Postman, 1992, p. 5). Postman consciously avoids boasting the opportunities of new technologies in favour of reminding us of the dangers of blindly accepting these. This skepticism and somewhat of an alarmist attitude could be construed as Chandler (2000) calls it “pessimistic determinism” – an almost fatalist perception where we cannot escape the wrath of technology (para. 14). What we are left with is an unbalanced argument whereby Postman assumes his readers are naïve and may well fall prey to the technological imperative. Underlying his negative outlook though, Postman presents key points to consider when thinking about technological change: 1) costs and benefits; 2) winners and losers; and 3) ecological impact.

Costs and Benefits

Postman (1992) uses Plato’s Phaedrus as a springboard for his discussion on technological change. From this story we learn that it is a mistake to believe that “technological innovation has a one-sided effect” (Postman, 1992, p. 4). Postman (1992) argues that every culture must always be in negotiation with technology as it can “giveth” and “taketh away” (p. 5). This stance asserts that technology is an autonomous force, and as Chandler (2001) explains it, technology becomes “an independent, self-controlling, self-determining, self-generating, self-propelling, self-perpetuating and self-expanding force” (para. 1). Postman briefly attempts to illustrate a more balanced critique of the costs and benefits of technological innovation by citing Freud (1930):

…If I can, as often as I please hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away…if there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town (p. 70 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 6).

Postman might argue here, what has technology undone? He contends that there are unforeseen side-effects of technology and that we can’t predict what is at the end of the road of technological progress – as “our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end” (Thoreau, 1908, p. 45 as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 8).

Winners and Losers

Innis (1951) discussed the idea of ‘knowledge monopolies’, where those who have control of particular technologies gain power and conspire against those “who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology” (Postman, 1992, p. 9). Postman (1992) infers that the benefits and costs of technology are not equally distributed throughout society and that there are clear winners and losers. A key example he refers to is the blacksmith, who praises the development of the automobile, but eventually his profession is rendered obsolete by it (Postman, 1992). Again, this viewpoint sees technology “as an autonomous force acting on its users” (Chandler, 2008, para. 8).

There is an unsaid expectation that the winners will encourage the losers to be advocates for technology; however, in the end the losers will surrender to those that have specialized technological knowledge (Postman, 1992). Postman (1992) states that for democratic cultures, that are highly receptive and enthusiastic to new technologies, technological progress will “spread evenly among the entire population” (p. 11). This sweeping statement is what Rose (2003) warns us against. Postman writes off the entire population as passive, mindless victims that have fallen prey to the autonomy of technology. However, he fails to acknowledge that the population may “resist the reality of technological impacts and imperatives every day” (Rose, 2003, p. 150).

Ecological Impact

Technological change is ecological and when new technologies compete with old ones it becomes a battle of world-views (Postman, 1992). For instance, a tug-o-war occurred when print entered the oral space of the classroom. On one side, there is orality, which “stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility” and on the other is print, which fosters “individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy” (Postman, 1992, p. 17). Each medium eventually found their respective place to change the environment of learning. Now orality and print wage a new war with computers. Postman (1992) asserts that each time a new technology comes along it “does not add or subtract something. It changes everything” (p. 18). Institutions mirror the world-view endorsed by the technology and when a new technology enters the scene, the institution is threatened – “culture finds itself in crisis” (Postman, 1992, p. 18). With this, Postman gives us a sense that technology is out of control, further evidencing his alarmist viewpoint of technological change.

Finally, the ecological impact of technology extends beyond our social, economic and political world to enter our consciousness. Postman (1992) believes that technology alters what we think about, what we think with and the environment in which thought is developed (Postman, 1992). Postman suggests that the population has a “dull” and “stupid awareness” of the ecological impact of technology (Postman, 1992, p. 20) – indicating that technology may be ‘pulling the wool’ over our eyes.

Conclusion

Rose (2003) warns us against taking extreme stances on technological changes – this leads to ideas that “become concretized in absolute terms rather than remaining fluid and open for analysis and debate” (p. 155). Nardi and O’Day (1999) suggest that extreme positions on technology critique should be replaced by a middle ground where we carefully consider the impact of both sides without rejecting one or another hastily (p. 20). Although it clear that Postman is biased toward a pessimistic outlook of technological change, he presents several key points that encourage us to think twice before accepting any technology and “do so with our eyes wide open” (p. 7). In the end, it is difficult to look past Postman’s bias and thus it is still questionable if in fact culture has blindly surrendered to technology as he suggests.

References

Chandler (2000). Techno-evolution as ‘progress’. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet10.html

Chandler, D. (2001).Technological autonomy. In Technological or media determinism. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet06.html

Chandler, D. (2008). Technology as neutral or non-neutral. In Technological or media
determinism
. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet08.html

Innis, H. A. (1951). The bias of communication. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Kurzweil, R. (2001). The law of accelerating returns. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1

Nardi, B. A., & O’Day, V. L. (1999). Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Rose, E. (2003). The errors of Thamus: An analysis of technology critique. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 23, 147-156.

Thoreau, H.D. (1908). Walden. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

2 comments


1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:16 pm }

I have been reading about the ecological impact of our new technology and it is scary how little it is mentioned.


2 Stuart Edgar { 11.30.09 at 1:49 pm }

Thanks for your commentary, Natalie.
I didn’t think that Postman’s position was as extreme as you interpret it, though.
While he may be categorized as a technological determinist, I don’t believe that he sees people as helpless in the face of new technologies. I think he is saying that we need to address deep social and political questions about the kinds of institutions and types of social organization that accompany new technologies.
I discuss this somewhat in my post:
http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept09/2009/11/29/hypermedia-and-cybernetics-a-phenomenological-study/

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