Technology changes things. Duh.

Posted by – September 10, 2009

This post is a short response to Neil Postman’s Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change, as assigned by my CS 404 class. In short: Postman’s first two ideas are wrong; his third is inconsequential; and his final two are rather insightful.

Postman’s first idea is that new technologies have unintended consequences. That is true, but where he goes wrong is in calling this obvious fact a problem.

The solution to the problems created by technology has been shown, over and over, to be more technology. Thanks to the Internet, the world at large is losing interest in television, and a culture of creators is growing up in its stead. Cars pollute our air, but electric cars are coming, and soon. Car accidents kill us, so DARPA-funded initiatives are developing the self-driving car, which will all but eliminate crashes. Our city streets are clogged with cars, but technology is working on that one, too.

This does beg the question of whether we will suffer the fate of the old woman who swallowed a fly. The answer is complex, but my gut says no. What killed the old woman was the fact that her solutions created ever larger problems. We can see that technological change is growing exponentially, but the problems of society are not.

Postman’s second idea is that technology does not benefit everyone. We create new technologies to solve problems. If you’re part of the problem, then of course the new technology will harm your interests. This is, again, true; and again, it’s not the problem he thinks it is. It is perhaps unfortunate that people are often part of problems that need solving; does this then mean that we should not solve those problems?

As this entry is running well over the assigned length, I won’t go into why Postman’s fourth and fifth ideas are interesting. For that, you can read them for yourself. That notwithstanding, I’d still like to leave you with this excerpt from Postman’s Fifth, which resonated with me rather strongly:

Whenever I think about the capacity of technology to become mythic, I call to mind the remark made by Pope John Paul II. He said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

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