The Judgement of Postman: The benefits and drawbacks of technological innovations

Postman introduces his book, Technopoly with chapter one, The Judgement of Thamus, in which he attacks American media and television. Postman’s main argument in this chapter is that new technologies alter the structure of our interests including the things we think about and the things we think with. He believes that this alters the nature of community and the arena in which thoughts develop (Postman, 1992, 6). Postman uses the legend of King Thamus, who rejected the invention of writing because it would inevitably damage memory and create false wisdom (Postman, 1992, 1), as an example of why it is imperative for the leaders of a society to consider not only at the benefits that a new technology may bring, but also the drawbacks. Postman makes the argument that new technology is a double edged sword, being both a burden and a blessing. He points out that the major downfall of King Thamus’ criticism of the invention of writing was his inability to acknowledge the benefits that the technology could bring to the society. Thamus solely focused on the negative aspects of the invention; Yet like Thamus, in this chapter, Postman (1992, 2) admittedly only focuses the negative impacts that technologies can have, suggesting that, “a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes.” His warning is clear, but by neglecting to consider the positive impact that technological innovations can have on society, Postman’s arguments represent an unbalanced viewpoint, with much left to be considered. While being aware of how new technological innovations affect people and societies is important, and furthermore, the negative aspects of these innovations are usually masked or ignored in the interests of the ‘winner,’ other possibilities need to be considered. Perhaps we are not necessarily overpowered by our technologies as Postman suggests, but rather that our acceptance of a particular, anti-cultural ideology leaves us no basis for the dominion we should have over our tools and that this is the problem (Nartonis, 1993, 69). While Postman does a good job of alerting us to some of the basic questions raised by the role of technology in modern society, he does not do a good job of preparing his readers to solve these problems (Nartonis,1993, 68), which weakens his arguments.

Postman also stresses the importance of moving into the future with our “eyes wide open” to the possible effects of new technologies. He believes that this will allow us to more clearly see the possible harm that a new technology could cause. However, Postman (1992, 4) also admits that it is not always clear who will gain most from a technology’s intrusion into a culture. This is why it is important to look at both the positive and negative aspects of any new technology innovation. Furthermore, the question that he does not dare to open up is, how will having this knowledge make a difference? Postman shows us how technology imposes its values on us, how it restructures people and the world, and how we have willingly surrendered our freedom to the control of the technologies we have, thus showing us that today’s technologies are out of our control, and instead control us (Laan, 2004, 145-146). Postman tells us that we need to negotiate with technology, but even his advocate, Laan (2004, 146) asks, “what can we do to free ourselves and take back control of our technology?” This is a question of grand importance that Postman avoids completely in this chapter. Nartonis (1993, 68) argues, it is the choices that we make and the values we employ that determine what role technology will have in society and in our individual lives and Postman avoids this important point. As both individuals, and a collective society, we do have choices in regards to the implementation of technologies within our personal lives. Postman does not give enough credit to the reasoning behind these choices we make.

Postman states that the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally, and emphasizes that the impact of new technologies on education are serious. He states that, “in the long run television may bring a gradual end to the careers of school teachers, since school was an invention of the printing press and must stand or fall on the issue of how much importance the printed world has (Postman, 1992, 3). It is evident that technological innovations have altered the American education system, including what and how students learn, as well as their ability to process information. However, Postman does not consider that, as technological innovations grow within the education sector, the availability of education becomes more widespread and teacher’s roles may not diminish, but rather change form and function. Postman looks at the spread of computer technology in schools. He argues that schools teach children how to operate computers instead of teaching more valuable things (Postman, 1992, 4). Again he fails to explain what school children should be learning. Postman believes that questions such as “will students learn math better through computer or books?” are not important because they direct us away from serious social intellectual and institutional crises that new media foster (1992, 5). He argues that what we need to consider about the computer is nothing about its efficiency as a teaching tool, but rather in what ways it is altering our conception of learning and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. My final commentary on this chapter questions why the ‘old idea of school’ so important to him. As society develops, ideas of school and other institutions are constantly changing. The main difficulty that Postman has with these changes, is the possibility that they don’t actually undermine old ideas, but develop upon them. As we gain knowledge and tools that help us build stronger houses, should we continue to use original ones to prevent undermining their once prominent role in society?

References

Narcosis, D. (1993). An Answer to Neil Postman’s Technopoly. Bull. Sci. Tech. Soc., Vol. 13, pp. 67-70, 1993. Retrieved September 17th from: http://bst.sagepub.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/content/13/2/67

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved September 17th 2013 from: http://csis.pace.edu/~dwyer/Fall2005/CIS101/CourseDocs/Postman.pdf

Ross, Susan M. (2009). Postman, Media Ecology, and Education: From Teaching as a Subversive Activity through Amusing Ourselves to Death to Technopoly. The Review of Communication (9, 2: 146-156) Retrieved September 17th from: http://www.tandfonline.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/doi/pdf/10.1080/15358590802326435

van der Laan, J. M. (2004). Neil Postman and the Critique of Technology (In Memory of Neil Postman Who Died on October 5, 2003). Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, (24,2: 145-150). Retrieved September 17th 2013 from:
http://bst.sagepub.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/content/24/2/145.full.pdf+html

About Amanda Bourdon

I am originally from Toronto, Canada. I currently live and teach in Guatemala and love to spend my free time exploring the outdoors.
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2 Responses to The Judgement of Postman: The benefits and drawbacks of technological innovations

  1. laurenmacd says:

    I enjoyed reading your commentary. I also took the perspective that Postman seemed overly critical. He focused on the negatives and not the positive. He does raise a lot of points about technological changes without providing an alternative, such as like you pointed out, what teachers should be teaching that is valuable to students.

  2. fotopasion says:

    He almost sounds like a luddite! I can see where some of his thinking stems from, and I like how you balanced the paper by asking questions he fails to consider. O’Donnell makes a statement about future libraries that’s historical in nature: “they’ll be the same, just better and faster”. Perhaps that’s something Postman should’ve considered! Many of his statements are deterministic, and full of fear of what is yet to come.

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