Technology Today: What Would Neil Postman Think?

phones

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.



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

4 Comments

  • Reply June 2, 2013

    Peter K Fallon

    “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…”

    David, I’d ask you to consider why you feel this “sense of disappointment.” You’re not disappointed, I feel certain, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never used a computer, right? For that matter, Martin Luther, 16th century reformer of the Church, never used a computer, but again I feel pretty certain that you don’t feel a “sense of disappointment.”

    These two people, of course, could not use a computer because there were no computers that were available for their use during their lifetimes. What is so disappointing, then, about an individual in the age of computers who has looked at them, considered what they can and can’t do, thought deeply about the computer’s biases, and decided that he didn’t need to use one? As you yourself said, you’ve never smoked crack (okay, that’s not exactly what you said) but you can think of any number of reasons why you wouldn’t.

    You have been conditioned by the values of your time, which are the values of technology: ease, speed, convenience, productivity, effectiveness, etc. I, too, was a student of Neil Postman’s (1986-1990) and I think it is important to note that Postman had great respect not only for Marshall McLuhan, but for two other thinkers who comprise part of the Media Ecology canon: Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul. Mumford’s “Myth of the Machine” and Ellul’s “Technological Society” are really two sides of the same coin and talk about the power structures who *actually* benefit from the assimilation of new technologies into a culture while the masses merely play with them — or use them to do the work of the power elites.

    For the record, I have a new book out. It is a book of essays, and one of them, “What Neil Postman Thinks About the Internet,” is a thought experiment I did based on my conversations with Neil as well as my readings of his work. It is, of course, an entirely fictional conversation and probably says as much about me — if not more — than it does about Neil Postman’s attitudes. But I’d be willing to argue the point.
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/cultural-defiancecultural-deviance/what-neil-postman-thinks-about-the-internet-an-excerpt-from-cultural-defiance-cu/373532399431236

    • Reply June 5, 2013

      David Cutler

      Dear Peter,

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your view, but we disagree here. I think it’s a false comparison to ask me to consider my disappointment with Dr. King never using a computer. For one, personal computers didn’t exist in the 1960s. Secondly, Dr. King himself never said anything (at least that I can recall) about technology. If I were to critique Dr. King, I would do so based on his own record. Neil Postman, on the other hand, made much of his career out of critiquing the media. I still find tremendous value in his teachings, but I’m disappointed about learning that he never used a computer. I can’t help but feel how this would have influenced his thoughts on the Faustian bargain, one way or the other.

      Certainly, let me know if you are interested in discussing this in more detail.

      Best,

      Dave Cutler

  • Reply October 23, 2013

    GP

    I believe you make two arguments: Postman would be critical of the Internet if he were alive today, and his criticism of the Internet *might* be less harsh if he used computers.

    As with your previous commenter Fallon, I don’t see why you are disappointed with Postman’s inexperience with computers. He died in 2003, and during Postman’s productive years of 1980s & 1990s, the Web was still in its infancy. I remember using telnet to read my emails in the 90s, haha. The most that Postman would have experienced in person was emails (which was more cumbersome than fax at the time), crude e-commerce sites, and mostly one-way websites. I find it hard to imagine how such experiences would have made him think differently about the technology. By your logic no one should make a living out of critiquing the industrial military complex without having used a gun.

    When you say, “I don’t see the downside of appropriate and ethical use of Web 2.0.” you’re missing the whole point. The Faustian bargain is that we cannot limit the Web to “appropriate and ethical use.” (Who decides what is “appropriate use” of the web is another beast, don’t you think?) Yes the Web allows us to share ideas and educate via youtube, Wikipedia, and countless apps. But it also enables endless streaming of latest flicks, cyber-bullying, and even shortening of our attention span (see “Is Google Making Us Stupid” in the Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/). With today’s Web, it’s even easier to Amuse Ourselves to Death.

    But on the whole, I’m with you about computers and the Internet. It’s a powerful tool, wholly different from TV, with vast potentials. Many creative teachers are experimenting with ways to maximize the benefits of this technology. In this blog, a community college chemistry professor documents his journey in using iPads to enhance his teaching: http://ipadjourney.blogspot.com/ If you read Bradbury’s posts, you’ll see that’s its beyond the mere “tablet and touch-screen education craze.”

    Thanks for a great post and keep teaching! 🙂

Leave a Reply