Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

Blogging has been light lately as I’m visiting family over the holiday break.

Today, however, I came across one of my favorite essays by the late Neil Postman, cultural critic and founder of my PhD-granting department at NYU, and felt compelled to interrupt my break from blogging to share it.

The essay, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change,” was delivered by Postman in 1998 to a gathering of theologians and religious leaders in Denver, Colorado.  Postman remarked on the things we should all endeavor to understand about how society is impacted by technological innovation. In it, he said that “technological change is not additive, it’s ecological”, and that in order for us to comprehend, manage, and even embrace the rapid changes brought on by the technological advancement happening all around us, we need to understand that technology doesn’t just add to society — it transforms it.

His concluding remarks continue to be apt 10 years later he first uttered them:

And so, these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

If we had more time, I could supply some additional important things about technological change but I will stand by these for the moment, and will close with this thought. In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it.


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