Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

In “The Judgement of Thamus”, Postman discusses the impact that new technologies have on society’s way of thinking (Postman, 1992). He claims that there are always costs and benefits to every new technology. Postman also believes that there must always be winners and losers within the technology realm. Postman argues that we must not accept new technologies blindly, but instead need to consider how technology is altering our conception of learning.

Postman states, “every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that” (p.4-5). Although this argument does seem valid at first glance, it must be dissected further. Freud’s opinion on this matter is drawn to our attention as he describes a few scenarios where technology has both helped and hindered humankind. As an example, Freud uses the improvement of modern medicine that helps to decrease infant mortality and increase the human lifespan. While this seems to be a technological advancement that brings with it inherent benefits, Freud sees living longer as not necessarily a positive thing if life is full of misery and suffering. Postman cautions us to not get caught up into only the burdens or only the benefits, as he ensures there are always both. While there can definitely be two sides to almost any story, it is an inaccurate assumption to think that all new technologies will be equally beneficial as they are costly. It is perilous to claim that there will always be detrimental costs to all new technologies. The benefit of increasing human lifespan and improving health of people is far more important than the costs that can occur due to these increases. Conversely, the nuclear bomb is a form of technology where the cost would far outweigh the benefit.

It is odd to think that writing was a new form of technology at one point in time. In Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”, he states “Plato was thinking of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of the computer” (Ong, 1982, p.81). Looking at writing as a technology, we see that our memory formation and ways of thinking have indeed evolved from a primarily oral culture.

Postman describes Thamus’ speech in Plato’s “Phaedrus”, at the beginning of his paper to show that Thamus had an error in highlighting only the downfalls of writing. Thamus stated that pupils “will receive a quantity of information without instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant” (Postman, 1992, p.4). Postman is trying to convey the message here that writing will (and has) changed the way we think, memorize, and create wisdom. Thamus thought that writing would only be a burden and there would be no gain. Postman states that we have learnt that it is never as one-sided as Thamus believed. Writing is definitely not burdensome considering the great change it has made for education and learning. Daniel Chandler claims that “those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies, as is commonly assumed” (1994). Literacy has helped us access, process, create and adapt information so much more than orality could do.

Another aim of Postman’s paper is to convey the message that there are winners and losers with the onset of new technology. “Those that cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence,” (Postman, 1992, p. 9). Postman claims that the benefits of a new technology do not get distributed evenly and the deficits fall into the laps of the disadvantaged. Claiming that computer technology only helps large-scale organizations, such as the armed forces and banks, is erroneous. Computer technology has aided many individuals and the “masses” more than Postman could have predicted in 1992. Individuals have benefited greatly from the Internet and computer usage, not just large monopolies. In fact, computers and the Internet have provided a platform for small-scale businesses or individuals to become recognized and to benefit from. For example, YouTube has provided many resources for individuals to access, as well as a stage to showcase talent, knowledge, and entertainment. Nearly all people with access to the technology can feel some of the benefits of computers and the Internet.

Technology undoubtedly has an impact on our learning and warrants careful consideration. However, we do not need to always look for the drawbacks of each tool or a hidden conspiracy in the media. We must assess the technology in order to discover the educational benefits to using certain new technologies, but for the most part, we cannot escape many technologies. Writing, computers, the Internet, Web 2.0, and mobile phone technology are all here to stay. Even though there are costs and downfalls for each, the benefits of this open communication and widespread amount of information needs to be appreciated and embraced.

References:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 22 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html

Ong, W. J. (1982). Writing restructures consciousness. Orality and literacy (pp. 77–114). Routledge.

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

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