In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman cautions against what he views as a prevailing movement towards a society where technology is increasingly in control of humanity (1992). He describes a world where technology is widely glamorized to the point where even those who he perceives and labels to be disadvantaged by it, including teachers and students, are often unaware of the negative impacts, and are blindly dazzled by technological feats which ultimately leave them worse off than they were before (1992).
While Postman argues that it isn’t the role of a cultural critic to develop practical suggestions, he urges the individual to be a “loving resistance fighter” (1992, p. 182) who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural” (1992, p. 182). Chandler (2001) classifies Postman’s type of technological determinism as one where technology is viewed to be autonomous, unpredictable, and beyond the control of humans and society. Regarding schooling, Postman yearns for a more humanistic approach, where technology and technical expertise is never the answer. Instead he believes that traditional narratives, symbols, morals, linguistics and the development of a sense of purpose in students should be amongst the main goals of education (1992).
Postman describes technological change as ecological, and claims that “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do” (1992, p. 7). There is some tension in this view in that he also states that a measure of even-handedness is required in the “calculus of technological change” (1992, p. 7). Postman leaves little room for the argument that the computer has a legitimate place in schools, and furthermore believes that “schools should stay as far from contemporary works as possible” (p. 196). Postman argues that students already have continuous and ready access to the popular arts of our own times, and that this overshadows the wisdom of the world before it became a technopoly (1992).
Looking more narrowly at Postman’s world view in the context of computers and schools, he makes the untenable argument that for four centuries, there has been a pedagogical peace between the modes of orality and print in schools, which is suddenly being threatened by the introduction of the computer (1992, p. 10). To suggest that allowing the computer into the classroom will result in the shattering of an idealistic perceived historical view of schooling fails to take into account innumerable changes that have taken place in schools throughout history, from the implementation and removal of segregation practices, new learning theories, to many technologies that have come and gone in classrooms over time. Such a view also fails to take into account the changing dynamics of orality and literacy themselves in the context of how writing developed as a technology over time, and how it continues to be shaped in our era of secondary orality (Ong, 1982).
The fact is that the institution of education is always a function of the present it exists in, and not only has it responded throughout history to the demands society places upon it, but it fundamentally has a duty to do so. Postman stipulates that there is no necessity in considering the computer’s efficiency as a teaching tool, and instead encourages us to understand how it is altering our conceptions of learning, and how computers and television are undermining the old idea of school (1992). The fallacy inherent in this argument is that it necessarily implies that there was a time when our conception of learning was somehow correct. Our modern understanding of literacy goes well beyond learning to engage with content, ideas and forms from the past, but also includes the development of critically reading and writing in a networked world.
Lankshear and Knobel define literacies as “socially recognized ways of generating, communicating and negotiating meaningful content through the medium of encoded texts within contexts of participation in Discourses (or as members of Discourses)” (p. 64, 2006). Rather than distancing education from new forms of technologies and information flows in 21st century society, schools have the responsibility to help students negotiate safely and meaningfully in our increasingly networked world, as well as to encourage critical thinking about both new and historical technologies.
In contrast to Postman, James O’Donnell’s view that doom and utopia appear in history less than we might expect, and that usually there is a necessity for society to muddle through choices, with losses and gains over time (1999) appears more realistic and open to the type of practical questions Postman eschews. Trilling and Fadel believe that the goals of education throughout history have been to “empower us to contribute to work and society, exercise and develop our personal talents, fulfill our civic responsibilities, and carry our traditions and values forward” (2009, p. 12). In this historical context, it is difficult to imagine how students are served in a meaningful way by an education system that ignores the changing realities of the world they live in. Schools are subject to societal and technological changes in much the same way that all corporations, individuals, cultures and other groups of peoples are. Schools have the duty to respond in a way that prepares students for their own reality, not a historical reality.
In Postman’s own words, school is a technology itself, “but of a special kind in that, unlike most technologies, it is customarily and persistently scrutinized, criticized, and modified. It is America’s principal instrument for correcting mistakes and for addressing problems that mystify and paralyze other social institutions” (1992, p. 185). It seems that in the present and in the conceivable future, the natural, and arguably critical role schools need to play is not to resist and ignore technological change as it becomes part of the fabric of society, but to focus energies on ensuring that students develop the skills to think critically and effectively interact with the social and information networks that have become part of their daily lives. While Postman’s book effectively encourages a more thoughtful approach towards adopting new technologies, there are many underlying paradoxes and conclusions drawn that ultimately ignore the realities of an ever changing world, as well as the necessity of schools to respond to such change over time.
Chandler, D. (2001, November 9). Technological Autonomy. In Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet06.html
Lankshear, C., & Knobel M. (2006). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Open University Press.
O’Donnell, J. (Speaker). (1999). From papyrus to cyberspace [Audio recording]. Cambridge Forum. Retrieved from http://media.elearning.ubc.ca/det/etec540/etec540-audio.html
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1982).
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology [Kindle for PC version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.