Postman (1992) uses an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus in which Thamus, a king of a great city of Upper Egypt, criticises Theuth’s invention of writing, as a starting point for his discussion on the influence of technology on society in general. Although he calls himself a sceptic, who perceives only the disadvantages of technology, he is actually a technological determinist which can be seen in many instances.
Chandler (1995) states that technological determinist sees technology as the only or the most important cause of changes in society. Correspondently, Postman (1992) claims that technology changes habits, views and cultural values. He claims that human minds have been influenced by the technology, which changes human understanding of reality. In other words, ideological bias is embedded in every tool as „a predisposition to construct the world“ (Postman, 1992, p. 13) in a particular way rather than another. This is what McLuhan meant by his famous statement „The medium is the message.“ (Postman, 1992, p. 14) and what Thamus tried to tell to Theut.
Chandler (1995) shows that technological determinists have both arguments for technology being neutral or non-neutral. Postman (1992) uses one of the typical arguments for non-neutrality of technology – the tools determine our view of the world. Additionally, Postman (1992) states that the uses of any technology are mainly determined by its structure. Technology „does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is“ (Postman 1992, p. 7). Postman (1992) interprets technology as being autonomous – humans have no impact on technology, which Chandler (1995) declares one of the misconceptions of technological determinism. Bolter (2011) sees technology of writing differently – as „the sum of the technical and social interactions„ (p. 20).
Technological determinism is also present in Postman’s claim that competent users of a new technology become an elite group, who are given undeserved authority, such as Theuth’s pupils will “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant” (Plato, in Postman, 1992, p. 4). Harold Innis calls it „knowledge monopolies“ (Postman, 1992). Additionally, „the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally“ (Postman, 1992, p. 9) – technology gives power to some social groups while takes it away from the others. For example, computers have increased the power of huge organizations such as airline companies or banks while disadvantaged masses of people by making them more easily tracked and controlled by powerful institutions.
However, Postman (1992) does not consider it conspiracy, he rather argues that at the moment of introduction of a new technology it is not clear who will be winners and who will be losers. It is a kind of a social lottery in which technology determines who loses and who wins. The reason for that Postman (1992) finds in unpredictability of new technologies – they often develop in a way not intended or predicted by their inventors. According to Chandler (1995), the Postman’s idea of autonomous technology out of human control is one of the features of technological determinism. The opposite example gives O’Donnell (1998) who describes how early Christians used the invention of a codex to preserve the Gospel and eventually gain their social power. After being criticised for technological determinism, Bolter (2011) has tried to declare that writing technologies are not external agents of cultural change, but its integral part that conditions and is conditioned by social and cultural forces. Chandler (1995) confirms that huge technological change is likely to cause social change, but it may or may not be widespread and major. Postman misses to notice that technology is just one of numerous mediating factors in social change, which constantly interrelate and influence each other (Chandler, 1995).
Postman (1992) claims that competition between new and old technologies, as one of the principles of technological change, that is inherent to media since they contain an ideological bias, represents a war between different world-views. This is a total war, which means that the influence of a new technology is not limited to some spheres of human activity, it rather changes everything. „Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological.“ (Postman, 1992, p. 18).
As an example, Postman (1992) describes collision of technologies in school – television vs. print. Students substantially influenced by the biases of television become failures in school being a bastion of the printed word. These students are failures because they are on the wrong side in a media war, but in time, they may be considered a success. Similarly, what Thamus called the „conceit of wisdom“ (Postman, 1992, p.4) eventually became the form of knowledge appreciated by the schools.
Postman (1992) also considers implementation of computers in schools. Since computers favour private learning and individual problem-solving, he poses the question: „Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?“ (Postman, 1992, p. 17) As recent development of collaboration tools and social networks shows, Postman was wrong, but this is aligned with his claim that technologies have unpredictable developments.
According to Postman (1992), the burning question for educators about the computer is not whether it is efficient as a teaching tool. The most important question is in what ways it is changing our conception of learning and school. Postman (1992) has tried to answer the question with a help of the judgement of Thamus who conveys the same message as Harold Innis – that new technologies change our interests, our symbols and our community.
It has been showed that Postman (1992) exposed some weaknesses typical for technical determinists, such as understanding technology as a cause of social changes and as an autonomous force. However, the value of his ideas lies in suggesting potential causal relationship previously overlooked, for which Chandler (1995) praises all technological determinists. Also, by using Plato’s Phaedrus as a basis for his discussion on influence of technology on society, Postman points out that this issue has been crucial to people through the history and that it requires our further consideration.
Bolter, J. D. (2011). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. New York and London: Routledge.
Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [WWW document]. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html.
O’Donnell, J.J. (1998). Avatars of the word: from papyrus to cyberspace.Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.