It’s five minutes before the start of class, and most of my students are on their phones, checking Tweets and Instagram messages. Facebook has become passé, or so I’m told.
One student tells me about Lulu, a new female-only app that lets women “review” men.
“Through Lulu, you can read and write reviews of guys, which are pulled from a variety of tools, questionnaires, and fun features,” the site’s “about” section explains. “The reviews show numerical scores across a number of categories, putting the emphasis on collective wisdom.”
As I watch my students envelop themselves in this new platform, I wonder what eminent technology critic Neil Postman would think. Unfortunately, Postman passed away in 2003 from lung cancer. But thankfully, I connect with Prof. Janet Sternberg, who worked closely with Postman in the early 1990s.
“First of all, he would shake his head,” says Sternberg, who now works as an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. “He would look around, and he would say, ‘You’re all crazy.’ But he would say it in a loving, kind way. Then he would proceed to tell you why.”
Sternberg speaks glowingly of Postman, her former teacher. For several years, she also served as his typist, and Postman would often dictate his ideas and notes to her. As I speak with Sternberg, I find it strange that Postman, at least as far as Sternberg can recall, never sat down at a computer. I ask Sternberg if beyond being critical of technology, Postman had a genuine phobia of machines.
“He was not afraid to use technology in general when it suited him,” Sternberg says. “He loved to ask the question, ‘What is the problem to which this technology is an answer?’ One reason he liked the fax machine was that it allowed handwritten notes to travel to Germany, where he had a lot of correspondents, very quickly. The fax machine solved a problem that was very meaningful for him, so he appreciated it.”
I like Postman’s reasoning. Too often, teachers use technology because it looks and feels “cool,” even if it doesn’t assist in the educational process. Take the recent tablet and touch-screen education craze, for instance. I imagine teachers of younger students find this function useful, especially in making learning exciting and fun. But I have yet to find any need for this function in my high school courses, even as I use other new and developing technologies.
I can only imagine what Postman would think of Lulu, and how this platform purportedly helps girls find and keep an ideal boyfriend. Our conversation turns to Postman’s Technopoly, published in 1992, about technology and the Faustian bargain. Postman dictated to Sternberg much of this manuscript.
“Here’s where Postman says people do not pay enough attention to the negative effects that come along as part of the bargain,” Sternberg says. “We’re so busy celebrating the nice things that we’ve got that we forget that it’s a bargain with the devil.”
I hold tremendous reverence for Postman, but I can’t help but be critical. I wonder if Postman felt protected by dictating his notes to Sternberg, as if a degree of separation from the computer’s keyboard preserved him from entering into his own Faustian bargain.
On the one hand, I agree that an overreliance on technology dampens one’s ability to appreciate face-to-face connectedness. Dr. Larry Rosen, author of iDisorder, also recently told me how psychiatric maladies are connected to how people relate to technology and media. I can only imagine nervous young guys worrying about their ratings on Lulu.
But to the best of Sternberg’s knowledge, Postman did not have a working computer in his home. How then could he criticize technology as harshly, or possibly come to see that the Faustian bargain doesn’t necessarily apply to every use or type of technology?
Unfortunately, Postman did not live long enough to see the recent evolution of the Internet and social networking, but I suspect he would be highly critical. All the same, I don’t see the downside of appropriate and ethical use of Web 2.0.
I’m a huge fan of Tioki, a niche site that allows teachers from around the world to post and share ideas. I’m a strong proponent of online and distance learning, which allows countless thousands an opportunity to afford higher education. I find tremendous educational value in Google Docs, which allows users to work on a shared document.
I have never smoked a cigarette, tried heroin, robbed a store or committed any number of other illegal or illicit acts. Still, I think I’m on safe ground disapproving of those things. But as far as technology goes, there is something to be said for “don’t knock it until you try it.” Technology can teach and inform, but only to the extent that users are willing to make effective use of it.
All of this isn’t to question Postman’s critique of technology. In fact, Technopoly is even more relevant today than it was 20 years ago. Just consider the ever-growing number of teenage girls obsessed with Lulu, engaging in potentially hurtful, disconnected behavior. It’s for this reason that I and countless others consider Postman among the most insightful social critics of the last century.
But I can’t shake a sense of disappointment that Postman didn’t use a computer, and how this might have affected his thoughts on the Faustian bargain.