Postman on Technology

The following quote is from Neil Postman’s 2000 book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. It’s a wonderful book and worth reading. Like Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death the book is filled with pointed insights engagingly presented.

In light of yesterday’s technology post, I thought it would be fun to include these words from Postman (published in 2000).

I suppose I cannot put myself forward as a model citizen of the digital age. In fact, there are many people who, when describing my response to the digital age, continually use the word ‘dinosaur.’ I try to remind them that the dinosaurs survived for a hundred million years, mostly because, I would imagine, they remained impervious to change. Nonetheless, I find it useful to ask of any technology that is marketed as indispensable, What problem does it solve for me? Will its advantages outweigh its disadvantages? Will it alter my habits and language, and if so, for better or for worse? My answers may not be yours, almost certainly are not yours. I write my books with pen and paper, because I have always done it that way and enjoy doing so. I do not have a computer. The Internet strikes me as a mere distraction. I do not have voice mail or call-waiting, both of which I regard as uncivil. I have access to a fax machine, but try to control my use of it. Snail mail is quite adequate for most of my correspondence, and I do not like the sense of urgency that faxes inevitably suggest. My car has cruise control, but I have never used it since I do not find keeping my foot on the gas pedal a problem.

You get the idea. I will use technology when I judge it to be in my favor to do so. I resist being used by it. In some cases I may have a moral objection. But in most instances, my objection is practical, and reason tells me to measure the results from that point of view. Reason also advises me to urge others to do the same. An example: When I began teaching at NYU, the available instruments of thought and teaching were primitive. Faculty and students could talk, could read, and could write. Their writing was done the way I am writing this chapter — with a pen and pad. Some used a typewriter, but it was not required. Conversations were almost always about ideas, rarely about the technologies used to communicate. After all, what can you say about a pen except that you’ve run out of ink? I do remember a conversation about whether a yellow pad was better than a white pad. But it didn’t last very long, and was inconclusive. No one had heard of word processors, e-mail, the Internet, or voice mail. Occasionally, a teacher would show a movie, but you needed a technician to run the projector and the film always broke.

NYU now has much of the equipment included in the phrase ‘high tech.’ And so, an eighteenth-century dinosaur is entitled to ask, Are things better? I cannot make any judgments on the transformations, if any, technology has brought to the hard sciences. I am told they are impressive, but I know nothing about this. As for the social sciences, humanities, and social studies, here is what I have observed: The books professors write aren’t any better than they used to be; their ideas are slightly less interesting; their conversations definitely less engaging; their teaching about the same. As for students, their writing is worse, and editing is an alien concept to them. Their talking is about the same, with perhaps a slight decline in grammatical propriety. I am told that they have more access to information, but if you ask them in what year American independence was proclaimed, most of them do not know, and surprisingly few can tell you which planet is the third from the sun. All in all, the advance in thought and teaching is about zero, with maybe a two- or three-yard loss.

We can quibble with him, but the questions and observations are at least worth pondering. I have an uneasy relationship with technology. But I find it inevitable. Change is inevitable. We learn to live and adapt. We must. And even though the electric stove, the dishwasher and the microwave oven have changed the way the family relates in and around the kitchen, I’m still rather fond of them.

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