Technology. Is it friend or foe? Over twenty years ago, Neil Postman wrote his book Technolopoly in an effort to “describe when how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy” (Postman, 1992). Even at the time he wrote his book, Postman could already foresee the potential for technology – both good and bad. Though he does set up a rather decent argument for both friend and foe, he is very clear on the fact that there are two very distinct sides and that the potential for either is a reality depending on the moral code of the ‘technology beholder’. “Technology…is both friend and enemy” (Postman, 1992), where that technology has provided the human race with the ability to progress, learn, and adapt to new and different ways of doing things, but with it’s uncontrolled growth it also has the ability to “undermine certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living” (Postman, 1992). It would seem that the good and the bad go hand in hand, and whose hand it’s in will determine the friend or foe debate.
The technology that Postman refers to is that which gave human kind the ability to do something that could not be done before, to make a task or job easier, or to gain power over another. The development of new technology created skepticism in some, and fear in others. Fear of change and the ‘unknown’ was a reality for many, and yet others were eager for power and the ability to do what others could not. The ability to write and read provided the power of asynchronous communication and permanence. Knowledge and history could finally be recorded for future generations to read and learn from, a story could be written down and remain unchanged; and an author could, in a sense, achieve a certain level of immortality by leaving his mark in ink.
The power of the word was originally in the power of the speaker of the word, and his ability to remember, memorize, and dramatize it for the listener. New vocabulary arose daily as new words were developed for new situations, items, places, and ideas. Postman states that, “it is a certainty that radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and that this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it” (Postman, 1992). He touches on the idea that “new technologies introduce new terms to the language…and also modify old words” (Postman, 1992). An example of this would be ‘retronyms’. These are words or phrases that describe old concepts or objects that are either no longer in use, or are considered unique. The phrase ‘snail mail’ was created to differentiate between email and physical mail that is sent through the post system. Another would be ‘rotary phone’, which was needed as an identifier for a phone that was not cordless or a cell phone. After digital clocks became common, analogue clocks needed to be declared as such to avoid the obvious confusion between the two. Everybody uses these new words, but few actually remember when they started using them. Technology and change have a tendency of sneaking up on us.
New technology, new vocabulary, and a new style of education are all coming into play. Postman suggests that, “those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become and elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such confidence” (Postman, 1992), which reflects on our education system today. An important goal for today’s teachers is to create an equal opportunity learning environment for all students. This means that all students should have the opportunity to “cultivate competence in the use of…new technology” (Postman, 1992), as they all deserve a chance to compete with their peers should they desire entrance into an ‘elite group’. Postman foresaw that education would have to change to accommodate the unprecedented growth and advancement of technology. 21st Century learning skills have been developed and constantly modified to fit in with the demands of our growing global community.
Friend, or foe? Technology, with its many faces, stares back at us from the mirror and there is no going back to the days before we knew it – hand washing and long-hand are at least two that are better off left in a history book. If technology is your friend, you will know it well enough. If it is your foe, you should probably know it even better.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf.