In this commentary, I will examine Neil Postman’s “The Judgement of Thamus” with reference to aspects of technological determinism as outlined in Daniel Chandler’s “Technological or Media Determinism”. Although I’m not a staunch technology optimist, especially during a week when my smart classroom malfunctioned and both departmental printers broke down, I find Postman overly negative in his views of technology and its impacts on society.
Postman begins the chapter with the story of King Thamus of Egypt and god Theuth, inventor of written text, as he believes the story contains several principles to inform how we should think about a technological society. First, Thamus cautions Theuth that the person who discovers an art is not the best judge of its effects on those who practice it. This indicates a belief in what Chandler (1995) terms technological autonomy, the notion that technology is self-controlling and independent from society.
Thamus goes on to criticize Theuth’s invention of writing, believing it will encourage literates to rely on external symbols rather than internal memory, leading them to possess mere information, not knowledge. Therefore, they will seem to be wise, but will in reality be ignorant due to poor instruction using the new technology. This is indicative of the linear thinking Chandler (1995) states is typical of technological determinism – the belief that the introduction of a new technology is the sole cause of change. I find this close-minded thinking on Postman’s part. Through the analogy of the Thamus story, he indicates his belief that instruction with new technology is poor instruction and methods which differ from the traditional are to be discouraged.
Postman (1992) believes Thamus is in error when he says writing will be only a burden to society, stating instead that every technology is both a burden and a blessing. He says this, yet the overall tone of the chapter is negative, describing proponents of technology “who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo” (1992, p. 2). He accuses the “zealots” of this, but is guilty of the opposite view, focusing on what technology may undo, and underplaying potential benefits.
He justifies his stance by claiming a dissenting voice is required to counter balance the masses of technology enthusiasts. Certainly, calm, impartial thinking must prevail while assessing the benefits and potential pitfalls of technology, but what is to be gained by being consistently pessimistic? As cited in Chandler (1995, p. 10), Postman doesn’t believe the effects of technology are inevitable, but insists they are unpredictable. This is a much more balanced stance from which negative effects of technology can be identified or predicted, ensuring the blessing of the technology is as intended and the burden reduced or eradicated. However, while he admits it’s an error to focus on the burdens and lauds Thamus for arguing both for and against each of Theuth’s inventions, Postman is incapable of the same impartiality throughout most of the chapter.
Postman states that “every culture must negotiate with technology” (1992, p. 2). The choice of the word “negotiate” again demonstrates Postman’s belief in technical autonomy, as does the assertion that technology is “autonomous, in the manner of a robot that no longer obeys its master.” (as cited in Chandler, 1995, p. 10). Chandler also cites Postman’s most striking depiction of technological autonomy, the “Frankenstein Syndrome”, which purports that man invents a machine for one purpose, but it independently takes on unexpected functions. Although I agree that technology has altered our behaviours and ways of thinking, it is a gross overstatement to equate this phenomenon to a monstrous predator inflicted on society.
This mindset is a reverse instance of what Chandler (1995) terms techno-evolution, in which change is seen as synonymous with progress. Instead, Postman assumes that new technology-related habits are automatically negative. This is indicative of a pervasive view that technology-mediated changes in ways of thinking and acting are automatically negative and harmful. Postman’s chapter would be more informative and insightful if it focused on how new technology is different from traditional methods and how these affordances can be exploited to improve teaching and learning.
Postman does not believe in the neutrality of technology, warning that that once society accepts a technology, it will determinedly fulfill its intention (1992). It is up to society, he states, to be mindful and wary of this purpose. His wording makes this sound ominous, but it needn’t be. Will advantageous technology not prevail if consumers adopt beneficial technology and reject that which is not useful?
Postman correctly points out that the introduction of new technology adds words to a language and changes the meaning of existing ones. However, I disagree that these changes are “insidious and dangerous” (1992, p. 4). Instead, they illustrate the natural evolution of language. As society and cultures change, so too does the language used to express current concepts and prevalent technology. Therefore, I feel Postman’s examples weaken his point. Yes, the telegraph, press, and television changed the definition of “information”. Therefore, these past examples can inform how the computer is altering the definition once again and how society can prepare for, adjust to, and benefit from these changes.
Postman illustrates several additional aspects of technological determinism as outlined by Chandler. First, he rightfully asserts that the benefits and drawbacks of technology are unequally distributed and that “almost nothing they need happens to the losers” (1992, p. 6). He then goes on to list a variety of societal woes he believes are the fault of technology, illustrating a main tenant of technological determinism which dictates that technology is the sole cause of societal change.
Second, he suggests that television may make teachers obsolete due to the change in dominance from print to visual media. Clearly, this did not happen, yet the same warning has been issued regarding the computer and other educational technology. Postman’s logic is reductionist in thinking and indicates a belief that technology is predominantly made up of machines and tools and that altering these tools will single-handedly cause widespread societal change.
Finally, Postman again attributes technology the potential for mass change by purporting that new technologies alter what we mean by “knowing” and “truth”. While I believe this to be a plausible assertion, I don’t feel that his example of assigning number grades illustrated the point well, as numbers are not a usually considered tools or technology. His point would be better made if he illustrated how emerging technology changes how we gain knowledge and assess its validity and truthfulness.
Chandler, D. (1995).Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tdet03.html
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.