Neil Postman presented “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” sometime just before the time of Y2K panic that is all but forgotten now that we’ve made it to 2012. While in some ways it’s obvious Postman is speaking from a technological time gone by, many of his ideas are highly pertinent to the advances made since, and how those affect society.
His first two ideas offer a lot of overlap, so I will respond to them conjunctly. I first learned in an undergrad class called Utopian Thought about Hegel’s theory that for every new idea, the opposite will form and from that will come the synthesis of the two (and the pattern will repeat). This idea has shaped the way I think since and I refer to it probably too often. I was interested to hear Postman address the same concept:
This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.
Like him, I believe the idea must be considered in regard to ever-growing and changing technologies. With the Steve Jobs era of unveiling some new and better technology every three months (or less), comes the introduction of the reactive product in society just as regularly. Postman acknowledges that this with-good-comes-bad concept is obvious, but argues that the bad is considered significantly less often than the good. I think that’s true today in terms of the specific technologies created, but I’m not convinced it can be made as a generalization for the presence of technology as a whole.
For example, the new iPhone just came out and American consumers spend months raving and reviewing (and buying!) it, in awe of its powers. But few discuss or consider what it means for society that 1 million people purchased the iPhone 4S within the first hour that it went on sale. What happens to their old phones? What does it mean that millions of people now have a near-constant distraction in their hands in the car, during class or even just while walking down the street? Far fewer people consider these things.
But I would argue that just like the doomsday-vocalists in 1999 who were certain the apocalypse was coming, the voice always exists–the one that imagines the worst. And sometimes it is right. More often than not it gets enough attention that at least a conversation is started. People naturally worry about it. Are our children spending too much time online? Will their brains turn to mush? Will they all become violent as a result of video games? Are we getting fat because of a newly sedentary lifestyle? These are important conversations to have and they are being had.
But, just as the printing press didn’t stop us from retaining and making use of knowledge (the way Socrates? I think? predicted), and, just as the U.S. medical industry, while causing some problems, yes, has also increased overall health undeniably, I like to think that it’s all part of a struggle to get to simply a new reality–a new step toward progress. I guess that’s touching on Postman’s theory about ecology. I’m not sure I’ve come to a solid conclusion here, but his ideas are obviously worthy of consideration. I’ll just say this…
In summary of Postman, but also my own interpretation of him: along with the good comes the bad, yes, but I believe it’s more important that the synthesis will come too and eventually that’s what will become reality. See? It all comes back to the Hegelian theory…