People working in educational technology are inundated with latest tools all proclaiming to act as major disruptive forces in traditional education. It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of innovation and become marketers of various technology applications in our school settings. It is also easy to introduce and promote these tools as they become available without much thought to the long-term consequences. Neil Postman, in his article Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology articulates the “dangerous and disturbing” view of technology that should be addressed today. (Postman, n.d.)
Bill Gates often says that people tend to overestimate technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term (Kirkpatrick, 2010). In my undergraduate classes in the 90s I learned of the coming impact of the Internet that would change education forever. That decade passed with little change. The educational impact of technology that was prophesized by some of my professors simply did not revolutionize the way we learn. Search technology such as Yahoo and later Google allowed us greater depth of research but there was no pressing reason to change teaching methodology.
It was during this time that Neil Postman was proposing his pessimistic view of technological capabilities. In his article, Tehnopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, Postman alerts us to the negative impact technology can have. He also proposes that humans have little control in this direction, “Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do” (p.7). This is what Daniel Chandler (2002) refers to as “technological determinism” (Introduction section, para.2). From this perspective, we have no control in the development in technology. In fact, Postman suggests that the best we can do is be aware of it: “when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open” (p.7).
Contrary to this view, I believe those in the educational technology have the power to go much further than the awareness level. When technology is admitted, we should be judicious in its use and apply it in a way driven from instructional design that will captivate students and promote student learning to broad audiences. That is, the usefulness of educational technology should be evaluated in terms of its alignment to course outcomes and assessment rather than its function outside the context of pedagogy.
The other important issue that Postman raises concerns knowledge monopolies. It is true that in the past technology was often controlled and exploited by the few. In the past century, television, film, and telephone were industries completely controlled by a handful or collaborating competitors. The result was, and still is, an overpriced system with poor quality. This system fit well with modern marketing that supported a narrow spectrum of content and benefitted the producers far more than the consumers.
The development of web applications in the past few years, however, moves in a direction that may actually break up this knowledge monopoly. Schools such as MIT, which Postman says have been a part of the knowledge monopoly created by the invention of print, are now offering Open Courseware. The traditional consumers of information are now also producing content in wikis, blogs, and video. In this development stage, there is a democratizing of information where the powerless are empowered to collaborate in new ways; but how effectively and for how long? Popular writer Malcolm Gladwell argues that relationships built on social media platforms are weak and unable to create real social change such as the change that took place in the 60s (Gladwell, 2010). Do we as educators play a role in helping students to strengthen these relationships to enable positive social change? How long will these tools remain democratic? Can we trust Google to continue to “not be evil” by keeping content open, or will they become another example of what Postman describes, an elite company accumulating power to serve itself.
When we consider how social media has developed in recent years, we can see that Postman got a few things wrong. For example, the computer did, and will not, kill “communal speech” in the classroom; it in fact enables it though various web applications. Postman believes that technology changes fundamental concepts such as “knowing” and “truth”. For now, as we witness applications such as Twitter challenge political authority as it did last year in Iran, it would seem it is giving these concepts back to people. Moving forward, we may benefit from asking the balanced questions Postman raises in order to prevent the knowledge monopolies from appearing again in new forms.
Chandler, D. (2002). Technological or media determinism. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet01.html
Gladwell, M. (2010). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell
Kirkpatrick, M. (2010). Google TV will “change the way people live their lives”. Retrieved from http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/google_tv_will_change_the_way_people_live_their_li.php
Postman, N. (n.d.). Technology: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.