Learning from Thamus

The following commentary focuses on the opening chapter of Neil Postman’s book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Postman (1992) urges readers to recognize the importance of developing an awareness that the introduction of new technology results in a blend of positive and negative effects on our modern day society. He does this through the retelling of the legend of Thamus. Postman compares the story of the negative reaction Thamus had to Thueth’s introduction of written communication to the release of modern technologies. The legend purports that Thamus reasoned that the introduction of writing would be only a burden on society as he feared that it would result the decline of intelligence, knowledge and effective use of memory.

Postman (1992) argues that it is vitally important not to fall into a narrow-minded mindset as Thamus did. He warns that “it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that” (p. 4-5). The combination of burden and blessing brought to us through technological innovations are evident in social, ideological and cultural contexts if one chooses to closely examine both the positive and negative effects technology has had rather than blindly enjoying the convenience and wonder that technology has instilled in our lives.

Postman (1992) describes Technolophiles as those who , “gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future” (p.5). The author wrote this years before the average person carried a Smartphone, tablet or computer with them to enable continuous access to technology throughout the day for a variety of personal, social and business reasons. It has become a common occurrence to see people in social situations focusing on their technological tools or toys rather than embracing the multitude of opportunities for social interaction surrounding them. Technology offers the capability to engage people on multiple intellectual, creative and social levels however it is important to be cautious not to let ourselves get so wrapped up in technology that we suffer continuous disengagement in alternate meaningful experiences.

Postman (1992) urges decisions makers to carefully look at the potential risks or burdens that may accompany new technology as he cautions,

we may learn from Thamus the following: once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is—that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open. (p.7)

It is important for us to take a proactive approach towards technology and become aware of both the possible negative aspects of the technology in order to make informed decisions and weigh the benefits and costs before blindly accepting its presence in our lives. Postman argues that once the technology is introduced to society “it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity” (p.18). It would be reckless to release new technology without taking into account what aspects of life will be effected by it being available.

As educators, we must determine the positive and negative aspects of incorporating technology in education. Technology has become such a vital aspect of daily life that it would be foolish not to embrace the potential usefulness of technology in education. Postman (1992) states that “The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children” (p.11). In the thirty years since Postman wrote this statement, the impact of technology in and out of classrooms has changed drastically. It would be naïve to believe that it is not valuable for children to learn to effectively and responsibly make use of technology.

However, we must avoid simply using technology for the sake of using technology. Any use of technology, like any other resource or tool, should be done with careful intent in the classroom. Postman (1992) states that “What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning” (p.19). As technology is always changing, the focus should not be on how to use a specific form of technology rather educators need to ensure that students learn to be alert and aware of how technology can be used. One of the most vital skills that students will learn and rely on throughout their lives will be how to discern whether information presented to them is reliable or not. Technology has revolutionized how information is presented and spread. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important for educators to teach critical thinking skills in relation to technology to students of all ages.

As technology is already a dominant presence in our lives, it is too late to mourn what has already been lost or altered as a result of its introduction. Technology is constantly changing and the competition to release new technology manufactures a great deal of poor, mediocre and useful technology. Postman (1992) states that “another principle of technological change we may infer from the judgment of Thamus: new technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view” (p.16). Technology has become an immense business in today’s market. Each individual must make decisions about which technologies are worth the input of time, money and effort it takes to implement them and whether the blessings of the technology outweigh the burden. In the classroom, educators must prepare students to make such decisions based on the critical examination of new technology rather than falling into the same trap of Thamus did in believing that technology is either a burden or a blessing.


Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. United States: Vintage Books. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=gYrIVidSiLIC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

About Sabrina

Hi. I am an elementary teacher at Pangman School in Saskatchewan, Canada. I teach in a multi grade Kindergarten, Grade One and Grade Two classroom. I am currently taking my first MET class. I have my B.Ed. from the University of Regina. I convocated with honours in 2003.
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1 Response to Learning from Thamus

  1. mwaters says:

    I agree that new technologies come with both positive and negative ramifications. With the rapid pace of innovation in the field of digital communication and other technologies, how much time has truly been devoted to analyzing the potential impact on students prior to use?

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