Can Technology Have Ideologies?

In the introduction to his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman (1992) argues, “New technologies alter the structure of our interest: the things we think about.   They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with.  And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (p. 28).  I believe Postman gives too much power to technology, and in handing over this power he creates a semblance of control over man; however, it is people who choose to let technology control their lives or not.

Postman (1992) claims new technologies redefine the old and we do not even notice (p. 8), but I do not agree.  It is more likely the new technology becomes the norm.  This does not mean we forget previous generations, but rather acknowledge the old and accept the new.  An example of new technology is texting.  Ten years ago it was foreign and now it is the norm.  This doesn’t mean we have stopped using the telephone with its original intended purpose or that we have forgotten that the telegraph existed.  Postman says, “the telegraph and penny press changed what we once meant by ‘information’…[and] The computer changes ‘information’ once again. Although I have never used a telegraph I understand its purpose and role in our history; the definition of information is not different other than how it is received.

The introduction of something new will have an effect, but it is not always completely transformative. Postman (1992) maintains, “Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive.  It is ecological…One significant change generates total change” (p. 18).  The troublesome word in that statement is ‘total’. We look back through history based on major technological advancements such as the printing press, the telephone, and the television and because this is how our culture perceives progress I understand Postman’s opinion.  David Chandler (1995) refers to this as a “techno-evolution” perception; the perception that social change has evolved through technological stages (par. 1).  Individuals with this perception gauge progress in terms of change, or improvement (par. 2).  What is often ignored is that progress is culturally defined (par. 6).  In our North American culture we equate success to technological advances, so Postman’s fears may appear grounded; however, he gives little attention to the power of man to make his/her own choice in relation to technology.   Even the Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines ecological as “the interrelationships between living organisms and their environment,” not the control of one thing over another.

Technologies are not as dangerous as Postman (1992) has us believe.  He warns it is better to “err on the side of Thamusian skepticism” (p. 5) and that computer technology has not been an advantage to the masses.  He maintains we have accepted the gain of the computer in return for the loss of privacy, unclear communication behind the technology, less personal connections, easier security breaches and focus on the technology rather than learning in schools.  While I cannot completely disagree with all of these items I would make two arguments: (1) it is a loss worth having for the gain and (2) the fault is in our own hands not technology.

In support of my first argument I will reference Li, Moorman and Dyjur (2010).  Video Conferencing made it possible to implement an inquiry-based model to rural Canadian students who were typically provided less course choice and support than urban students.  Results indicated an increase in student engagement and confidence.  There was also an improvement in learning; however, it was unclear if this was attributed to the classroom environment or the difference in exam type from the pre and post test.  What is significant about this example is that it was made possible through technology.  An inquiry-based model could be implemented without video-conferencing, but it was unlikely in this rural settings.  Technology has improved the learning environment for these students.  While it is not without issues, such as inequality in Internet access throughout rural Canada, it does illustrate the gains that can be achieved when barriers are removed.  This is just one of many examples where the gain of a technology outweighs the loss.

Secondly, I maintain that technology is not at fault.  Postman (1992) argues “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify on sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another” (p. 13).  There is an ideological basis, but it’s inherent in the user not the tool.  David Nartonis (1993) claims:

“Technologies do not act; men and women do.  Television does not orient us to instant gratification; we gratify ourselves by watching television. Experts don’t mislead us unless we abdicate our decision-making roles.  Most of us who live in a technological culture have had moments of feeling diminished before a complex machine.  But it is the choices we make and the values we employ that determine what role technology will have in society and in our individual lives” (p. 68).

As mentioned above, North American culture values technological advances.  If society chooses a technology that robs them of their basic rights and/or culture they have no one to blame but themselves, least of all technology.  Postman (1992) is correct in his statement that with each new technology comes gain and loss.  However, while these losses may be manifested into our day-to-day lives he incorrectly blames technology rather than our acceptance of these losses.

References:

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved, 28 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

Ecological (2008). In Oxford English Dictionary online.  Retrieved from the University of British Columbia library database http://resources.library.ubc.ca/274/ 

Li, Q., Moorman, L., Dyjur, P. (2010). Inquiry-based learning and e-mentoring via videoconference: A study of mathematics and science learning of Canadian rural students. Educational Technology Research and Development; 58 (6), p729-753.

Nartonis, D.K. (1993). An answer to neil postman’s technopoly. The Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society; 67-70.

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

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