Monday, October 8, 2007

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Changes

Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological changes. In P. De Palma (Ed.), Computers in society (pp. 3-7). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.
Unit 1, Article 1

Review by Kim Doyle

This article is an address presented by Neil Postman to New Tech ’98 Conference in Denver, Colorado, March 27, 1998. The theme of this conference was “The New Technologies and the Human Person: Communicating the Faith in the New Millennium”. With the 21st century drawing near, Postman suggests and validates existing concerns regarding the impact that technology will have on faith and how its advances will pose new problems. In this address Postman offers five ideas that, if concerned about cultural stability and balance, we should know about technological change. Here is a brief summary of those ideas.

First, Postman suggests that all technological change is a tradeoff – that for every technological advantage there is a corresponding disadvantage. Using the automobile as an illustration, Postman points out that while there were many advantages that came with this new invention, there were also disadvantages to driving these vehicles including the negative impact on air quality. There is a cost for new technologies and culture always pays a price.

The second idea Postman presents is that the advances of technology are never distributed evenly among the population. New technology benefits some but not everyone. While television has expanded opportunities for many, Postman was predicting that the television may actually lead to the end of some teachers losing their jobs as it would overshadow the importance of the printed word upon which schools were based. Postman further points out the irony of computers representing the “Age of Information” and yet regardless of the amount of information accessible to us through computers, we have still not been able to solve some of the most serious problems that challenge us.

The third idea is that embedded in every technological advancement is some type of prejudice or bias that can at times work for us and at other times work against us. There is a philosophy of technology that seems to suggest what is most importance is speed, immediacy, analysis and organization rather than embracing the value of the spoken word, reflection, emotion and intellect.

Fourth, Postman cautions that technological change is not additive, but rather ecological. Computers are not a form of technology that has simply added something to our lives; they have changed everything – the way we communicate, how we learn, how we are connected to, exposed to and influenced by others.

Finally, Postman’s fifth idea is that media tend to become mythic and that our enthusiasm for such inventions and their benefits becomes a form of idolatry. Postman cautions that technology is not part of God’s creation but a product of human creativity – something that should be viewed as “a strange intruder” that could control more of our lives than we would want it to.

In conclusion, Postman encourages his listeners to be alert to technological advances. We have responded to previous advances unaware of possible disadvantages placing ourselves at risk of being controlled by technology rather than controlling it. Postman offers this final word of caution; “We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we may use technology rather than be used by it”.


I was unfamiliar with Neil Postman and his context. After a short bit of research I learned that he was an American Professor, also considered a cultural critic and old-fashioned humanist who believed there were limitations to the promises of technology. He lived from 1931 to 2003 having had a 40-year association with New York University.

I actually appreciate Postman’s cautions about technological advancements. While I may not agree with everything he says, I do accept his fundamental message that we must be alert users of technology so that we can use it to our advantage and not allow it to take over our lives.

Postman suggests that with every technological advantage comes a disadvantage. It’s a tradeoff. Just as the creation of the automobile resulted in advantages and corresponding disadvantages, so too has the rapid advancement of computer technology resulted in significant disadvantages despite its many wonders. The impact of computer waste has created a significant environmental dilemma for our country where recycling and disposable efforts cannot keep up with the pace of advances and upgrades. Unlike creations in the past that were used for fairly significant periods of time before replaced with “newer models”, such as the automobile or television, computers have become very disposable. New features are added frequently and tempt users to upgrade often resulting in the problem of what do we do with the old which may actually be very new.

Technology does not benefit everyone. This is the simple truth. Not everyone chooses to use computers and other technological instruments available to us, nor do we all have access to the necessary resources to acquire these tools. Yet it’s an implied requirement for all humans. I frequently hear those that rely on email for communication express frustration at not being able to communicate with someone who may not have a computer or an email address - as though using the telephone is no longer an option. And then, even more of concern, are those who feel that the onset and development of computers will eventually lead to loss of jobs. We must keep up or risk being left behind.

Computers and the Internet can clearly be a danger. How often we hear of “cyber-stalkers” luring young girls into dangerous and potentially lethal situations. I have two teenage daughters who have unknowingly put themselves in harms way by not fully understanding the degree to which they expose themselves when creating and visiting My Space pages or joining chat rooms. It’s frightening as a parent. One must be very cautious.

I can remember not having a computer. I can remember as a college student spending great amounts of time in the “calculator” lab completing assignments for my statistics class. I know I’m dating myself and certainly not suggesting that I haven’t benefited greatly from computers. I can imagine not having a computer but, if given a choice, would not give mine up now. But being alert and using technology to my advantage rather than allowing it to control me is sound advice.


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