In Postman’s Technopoly, he talks about the dangers of technology. He talks about how while it may initially bring us convenience and efficiency, it also has the potential to bring many burdens with it. He states that his “…defense is that a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes” (Postman, 1992, p. 5) and he wishes to stimulate a conversation to temper the enthusiasm of the technophiles (Postman, 1992). His article is fraught with the dangers of technology and how they are constantly defining and redefining society. While Postman may have the technological deterministic view that technology is the driver of change, in this commentary I take an opposing point of view and contend that it is the human factor that truly causes shifts in culture and society.
Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that states that technology is the primary driver of change in culture and society. Technological determinism has many forms and can range from a hard extreme to a soft extreme. The hard extreme suggests that technology is an autonomous agent of change that works independently of social constraints. In this view of technological determinism, technology is so pervasive that no non-technology alternatives can be created or considered. The soft view of technological determinism is that technology does drive social change, but it does respond to some social pressures (Smith & Marx, 1994; Chandler, 2008; Wikipedia, 2011).
There are many criticisms to the technological determinism point of view. Smith and Marx state proponents of this theory are giving the term technology so much power, even though “it has no members or stated policies, nor does it initiate action” (Smith & Marx, 1994, p. xii). Technology is simply a concept and a word, so how can it have so much impact on culture and society? In addition, how can technology, which has been either created or programmed by human beings, have the power to affect human destiny (Smith & Marx, 1994)? The creators and the users of the technology are what determine the changes that we see culturally or in society; the mere existence of a technology does not drive human destiny.
In Postman’s article, he states that “once technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do” (Postman, 1992, p. 7). How can technology play out a hand, without a human being operating or interacting with it? Technology does not stand on its own as it not only is created by humans, but it is also used by humans. As technology’s use can impact society and civilization, it is important that we seek to understand this, but it is unlikely that technology on its own can operate to affect change (Mumford, 1934).
Furthermore, Postman states that “technology commandeers our most important terminology” (Postman, 1992, p. 8) and redefines specific words that we live by. I challenge this notion by saying that it is not technology that redefines terms, but us. While it may be true that technology may change the way we think about certain terms, it is still us who redefine the words and their meanings. Moreover, as we are the creators and operators of technology, we are the ones who are constantly modifying and changing it to meet our needs.
Postman (1992) also brings up how the technology conditions our minds to perceive things differently. Specifically he states how the use of numbers changes how we rate, perceive and view things. He suggests that the invention and application of numbers for things such as school marks and IQ creates a hierarchy of values (Postman, 1992). While this may be true, again, it is the human who perceives the numbers that is creating the value. The technology of numbers does nothing on its own, but when humans use and interact with it, that is when we see the change.
Postman (1992) also speaks about the consequences of technology and how it changes our world. There are consequences to incorporating technology into our lives, and while Postman may believe that these consequences are due to technology itself, I believe that the users or inventors of the technology play a more primary role. Technology that gets accepted and incorporated into our daily lives is mediated by people more than the technology itself (Feenberg, 1995).
In conclusion, while it may seem that technology is changing our culture and society, I believe that human beings are still the ones who are making the changes. Technology does not stand on its own; it is constantly being created, used and modified to suit our needs. Technology does affect society, but it is us who determine how technology affects society. While technology on its own is not good or bad, it is how we use it that gives it its value. Humans mediate how technology is used, but technology on its own can do very little. After all, a pen can’t write itself and a computer cannot turn itself on; it is the operator that is in control.
Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html
Feenberg, A. (1995). Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social theory. London: The Regents of the University of California.
Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and Civilization. Chicago: The University of ChicagoPress.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Smith, M. R. & Marx, L. (1994). Does technology drive history?: the dilemma of technological determinism. USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wikipedia (2011). Technological Determinism. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_determinism