Been reading Neil Postman again

Technopoly (1995) this time, and feel moved to respond, in defense of the future he has not lived to see.

I’d like to say, “Mr. Postman, you were right–technology is changing the way we do basic human, communicative things like teach and learn, report news and express opinions. However, the genie is long out of the bottle, Mr. P. Educators can learn to tame technology, harnessing it to improve students’ learning–or they can attempt to ignore it and exlude it, and in the process render their enterprise useless to a 21st c. learner.”

For those who haven’t read him, here are some premises of Postman:

* that technology begets culture, for good or ill
* that tools shape us more than we think as we use them
* that as educated humanists, the responsible thing is to guide society’s choices, warn against the hasty technophiles
* that whenever any new technology emerges in a culture, there are good and bad present, depending on your stance–there’s a “winner” and “loser” in each transaction.

I agree with Postman thusfar. I understand the careful consideration he wants to give computer-related changes. They are remarkable. Unlike other media evolution, computer-enhanced communications media seem to alter the quality, as well as the quantity of information. The way and manner of knowing itself seems shifted.

And of course it is always good for humans to ask, as Postman does in Technopoly, “how will this new tool change things?” In human history, every major tool has changed the way we live, in intended and unintended ways, for good and for bad [e.g., the plow made sticking around seem a good idea to the nomad, sparked civilizations and its contents and discontents; the telephone gave individuals voice and reach, made physical presence irrelevant–compassion and alienation in easy reach; the electric guitar gives anyone who wants it–talented or not–high signal strength rock n roll, and hence the ability to form instant concert communities–something formerly scheduled for the town’s band stand, or done at a royals’ or clergy’s command, etc.)

So yes, each widely adopted new tool will shape culture. By all means let us observe, let us question, and let us discuss the changes, soon enough to notice danger arising.

Yet to my mind Postman kicks over-reactively against computer-based change, citing TV’s presumed predation on civilization (killing the book and social intercourse, etc.), he cautions us to, before exposing the general public to a new tool, become good at the new technology slowly, and understanding fully its benefits and drawbacks in advance of making it popular. We must be certain it won’t harm the children.

I’ll pass over the rather patronizing stance this displays toward young people and popular media and say, “yes, Mr. Postman,, we should think before acting. But we should also be reasonable practitioners, willing to explore disruptive changes where the costs and risks are slight and the benefits well-worth exploring.”

“Mr. Postman,” I’d tell him, “the only way ill effects can be known is through experimentation. We know that these communication tools already engage students. How foolish for us to sit back on the tools we know and refuse to explore ways we can co-opt the new tools for enhanced learning”

To finally put him at ease, I’d tell him to please note the evolutionary power of narrative through media–tv did not destroy the book. And including the 60 percent of the planet now using cell phones, people are connecting more, not less, via interpersonal social media.

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