Do we use technology, or does technology use us?
Neil Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”
I’m late to the party, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need to pay much more attention to the ways digital technology is reshaping human experience. So when I came across a reference to a Neil Postman address on this subject, my ears pricked up. Postman is best known as the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public discourse in the age of show business, a prescient account of technological changes up to and including television and their influence on culture and conversation, published in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, he followed it up with a lecture titled “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”. Here’s a summary of that lecture.
1. “Culture always pays a price for technology”
The essence of this idea is that “all technological change is a trade-off … for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.” Netflix and iTunes are good news for consumers who have access to a previously unimaginable slew of entertainment options, but bad news for Blockbuster and Video Ezy and the local town centres they contributed to. Less obviously, but more importantly, the creation of algorithmically-driven movies can simply trap us in a race to the lowest common denominator and an endless cycle of remakes, sequels and prequels, stunting our imagination and our appetites in the process.
So, Postman says, “the question, ‘What will a new technology do?’ is no more important than the question, ‘What will a new technology undo?’ Indeed, the latter is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.”
2. “There are always winners and losers in technological change”
Following on from the first idea is the second, that “the advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly.” Postman asks, pointedly, how computers have benefitted the majority:
“These people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more than ever reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political institutions.”
These concerns have only deepened since Postman first aired them. Think of ubiquitous digital marketing, which tracks our every move online in order to sell to us, and targeted political messaging campaigns on social media which present alternate versions of reality to different users. Tech giants like Amazon and Facebook are clear winners. Ordinary users? Not so much.
3. “Every technology has a philosophy”
Postman’s third idea is that, “Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea”, one which “predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.” A technology’s “powerful idea” shapes the way people “use their minds”, what we “do with our bodies”, and how we “[codify] the world.” It amplifies some of our senses, and disregards some of our “emotional and intellectual tendencies.” This, says Postman, is what is meant by the famous statement, “The medium is the message.”
For example, the ability to edit and curate virtual reality bleeds into a belief that physical reality should be just as plastic and editable. If what is most real, most truly us is the story we tell about ourselves and the image we project, then there’s no reason for the inferior matter of the body to follow suit. In this way, digital technology encodes the age-old mind/body dualism.
4. “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological”
The world plus a new technology becomes a new world. “A new medium does not add something; it changes everything.” Postman’s example concerns television and politics. The introduction of television as a visual medium turned “political discourse into a form of entertainment,” made it “impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office,” and reduced “political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial.” In our day, we might think of the effects of social media on politics—the priority given to (carefully crafted) authenticity and appearance, the increasing dominance of the short and visual over the long and written form, and the way virality equals success. Labour’s 2017 campaign slogan, “Let’s do this,” was so brilliant precisely because it was simultaneously aspirational and empty, a hashtaggable phrase perfectly curated for the superficiality of the digital era.
So, Postman says, the “radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry … All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast an unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them.”
5. “Media tend to become mythic”
By “mythic,” Postman means that technology tends to be seen as “part of the natural order of things,” as “gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.”
The tail-end of Gen X and the first members of Gen Y are probably the last who can remember the Before Times when the internet was not a fact of life and we didn’t breathe wifi. Anyone born after us not only missed out on the dubious pleasure of the dial-up modem’s screechy melody but will likely regard a state of liquid connectivity as given, a smartphone as a natural extension of their hand, and digital relationships as just as real and immediate as personal ones.
So we need history and memory to help us understand that, “technology is … a strange intruder, [and] to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”
Postman was not a technophobic Luddite and nor am I. Rather, his point was that instead of blindly adopting technology we should pay much closer and more critical attention to the ways in which it changes things: “We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.”