The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Burden or Blessing?

As a typographic culture (and becoming more so a Web 2.0 culture), we take for granted the power that writing has on our everyday existence.  Neil Postman (1992) in his book, “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” asks us to consider both the “burden and blessing” that technology holds within our lives.  To examine writing as a technology, Postman refers to Plato’s Phaedrus whereby King Thamas is opposed to sharing the new technology of writing as he fears that it will be detrimental to his people.  Although Postman argues that we should not be as one sided as King Thamas, I find that his position is sceptical and often Luddite in nature.  That being said, I feel that Postman’s “Technopoly” offers numerous points for further reflection.

“The words technical change have come to symbolize for people all over the world a hope that is new to mankind” (Mead, 1955, p.1).  Postman shares that Plato’s Theuth shared a similar interest to Mead of spreading the new technology of writing to the masses.  Many see technical change as a means to add to a cultures knowledge base and should be widely distributed.  I also think that we should take what we know and better ourselves with new techniques and technologies.  Postman on the other hand cautions that a “new technology does not add or subtract something.  It changes everything” (p. 18).  I don’t agree with Postman that new technology can change everything as I feel it needs to be proven valuable and useful first.  An example of this is the perseverance of Sidney Pressey to revolutionize teaching with his “Automatic Teacher” machine (Petrina, 2004).  Pressey’s goal was to create a new technology that would free teachers from mechanical tasks so they could spend more time with individual students (Petrina).  While the intentions were admirable, both the technology did not live up to its standards and the culture of teaching was not agreeable to machines as teaching aids.  The teachers in Pressey’s time did not believe that this technical change was a blessing to them as thus Pressey’s “Automatic Teacher” was never widely adopted.  Similar sentiments were felt when writing was the new technology and people opposed its adoption.

Ong (1982) shares the story of A.L. Luria who did fieldwork with literate and illiterate people in rural Uzbekistan in 1931.  Luria found that “it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes” (p. 50).   Both Ong and Postman agree that those that are in control of knowledge have power.  Postman cautions that this elite group have been “granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence” (p. 9).   Postman makes an excellent point of “underserved wisdom” and I would argue that this is reflected with what is taking place in today’s classroom.  There are teachers, administrators and parents that believe that using new technology in the classroom is of paramount importance and thus, those who use it are applauded and those who refrain from adoption are seen as obsolete.  I would agree with Postman that there are “winners and losers” in the knowledge monopoly.  The technological knowledge gap that exists within a school creates a burden on teachers.  As someone from a literate cultural circle it is hard to understand the struggle that occurred as writing was the new technology and was gaining popularity.

Postman urges us to examine the introduction of computers into the classroom as he feels they will alter they way in which we teach and learn.  Postman describes how King Thamus believed that communication and instruction were tied to orality.  He argues that orality stresses group learning and cooperation whereby print learning focuses on individualization and competition.  Ong would agree with Postman in that he feels that orality creates unity and “writing and print isolate” (p. 73).  Both Postman and Ong wrote in a time that differs from now: widespread adoption of computers in classrooms is inevitable.  I consider the points that both make and I would agree to some, but I would argue that an evolution has taken place and that computers are being used to increase collaboration and improve overall learning among students.  Web 2.0 has taken hold and wiki’s and community weblogs are being implemented into classrooms and are facilitating cooperation and collaboration among students.  The successes of Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, are built on the premise of social constructionist beliefs whereby knowledge is created by the expertise of the group (Moodle).

Technology is ever changing.  Technological change has occurred from oral cultures to chirographic cultures, to now a Web 2.0 culture.  If Postman was writing in 2009 he would have to include discussions of digital footprints and such into his discourse.  I believe that we have to take lessons from the past to decide if the latest and greatest technology is a burden or a blessing and if we as individuals chose to adopt it.  It is hard to understand that once writing was the new technology and it had opponents.  I think Heidegger (1953) said it best, “but we are delivered over [technology] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”



Heidegger, M. (1953/1977). The question concerning technology. In M. Heidegger, The question concerning technology and other essays (trans. W. Lovitt) (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row.

Mead, Margaret. (1955). Cultural Patters and Technical Change. New York: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Moodle. (2009) Retrieved September 27, 2009 from

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Petrina, S. (2004). Sidney Pressey and the automation of education, 1924-1934. Technology and Culture, 45(2), 305-330.

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


1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:29 pm }

I agree that we should, now and then, stop and evalaute the impact that technology has had on our lives and on those of our students.

2 Stuart Edgar { 11.30.09 at 5:05 pm }

Alexander seemed to think that course management systems like Moodle didn’t go far enough in drawing on the “wisd0m of crowds”. I don’t have much sympathy for Alexander but I think he’s right that course management systems have serious limitations.

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