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Neil Postman Ponders High Tech
Wednesday 1/17/96

neil postmanNeil Postman, author of Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and The End of Education, debates the value of new technology. Dr. Postman is the head of Culture and Communications at New York University. He believes there is a limit to the promise of new technology, and that it cannot be a substitute for human values.

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A question from Paige MacLean:

Technology seems to be developing faster than our ability to understand what we're using it for. Do you see any necessity for slowing the growth of new technology? Are you or others creating forums for such a debate? (Ironically the Internet seems the perfect place for such an exchange!)

Dr. Postman responds to Paige MacLean:

Dear Paige,

I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. A new technology helps to fuel the economy, and any discussion of slowing its growth has to take account of economic consequences. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.

A question from Jennifer in Washington, DC:

What are the positive effects of new and emerging technologies? Are there ways to maximize the benefits of the Internet and e-mail while minimizing the possible negative effects on society?

Dr. Postman responds to Jennifer in Washington, DC:

Dear Jennifer,

Although, to be sure, there are many positive aspects of new and emerging technologies, I am not the best person to answer your question. I have concentrated my attention on the possible negative consequences, mostly because everyone else seems to speak about the advantages technology will bring. Someone needs to mention what may be lost. Of course, one of the problems is that what I would judge to be a negative consequence, someone else might see as a positive consequence. For example, telephones in automobiles seem to me a very bad idea. So does spending a lot of hours "communicating" on the Internet when one could use that time reading Cervantes' Don Quixote.

A question from Alice Clapman:

Television is a medium where a producer or reporter has complete control over the programming content. Cyberspace decentralizes the information distribution process. Isn't that a good thing? I think that is a problem to which the Internet is a solution.

Dr. Postman responds to Alice Clapman:

Dear Alice,

It is not entirely true that a TV producer or reporter has complete control over the contents of programs. The interests and inclinations of the audience have as much to do with the what is on television as do the ideas of the producer and reporter. Still, I understand your point, and I would agree that cyberspace contributes to the decentralization of information. Of course, so does a library and so does a conversation. The Internet may well be a solution (as you say), but of course, like any solution creates new problems--for example, the absence of "gatekeepers" who are useful in separating the irrelevant from the relevant and even the true from the false.

A question from Jonathan Salant:

People with fast modems and powerful machines can participate in the creative and thought provoking experiments on the Internet, but those without the right equipment cannot. What can we do to alleviate the difference between the haves and the have-nots in cyberspace?

Dr. Postman responds to Jonathan Salant:

Dear Jonathan,

I think there will always be a gulf between the haves and have-nots, so far as technology is concerned. Such a gulf even exists between automobiles. Most people can afford to buy an automobile, but there is a big difference between a Mercedes-Benz and a Saturn. But even when the problem of the access to technology is solved so that anyone who wishes can have access to technology, there still remains a problem. For example, just about anyone has access to a public library (at least in America). In that library we find the greatest, most profound, most illuminating literature that human beings have so far produced. Do most people read these books? Have you read Cervantes? Have you read the sonnets of Shakespeare? Have you read Hagel or Nietzsche? Their books are in the library, you have access to them, why have you not familiarized yourself with this literature? (Even if you have, I think you will agree that most people have not. Why?)

A question from Debbie Hemenway:

The very fact that I can zap you this message both fascinates and frightens me. I am a 50- year-old dinosaur, still wedded to print and paper, teaching 14 to 18-year-olds who apparently have a different brain than mine, one that is wired to be wired, to take information in bits and bytes. How do we educate these kids? How do we keep the things we value and still prepare them for the world in which they surely will live?

Dr. Postman responds to Debbie Hemenway:

Dear Debbie,

The question you ask is one I have pondered for the past 30 years. In fact I have written six books in which I have tried to answer the question. May I suggest to you that two of these books- Technopoly and The End of Education- contain the best answers I can think of.


A selected sample of responses from our visitors, provided in addition to those answered by Dr. Postman.

Lyn Burr Brignoli

Undoubtedly, the new technology can never substitute for human values. The dilemma is not new, however. Do we use our knowledge of nuclear fission to make a bomb, or for power to heat our houses, or for medicine to heal people? Knowledge, i.e. technology, without a moral underpinning becomes chaos, just as democracy without ethical values is chaos. Vaclav Havel wrote a magnificent essay along these lines published last year in "First Things." Why do we think technology is above morality in the first place? The real question is, how should I conduct my life?--rather than-- what tools should I use?


Leo Hannenberg

I support computer systems at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, MA. I have experience developing WWW pages. I tend to agree with Neil Postman that there is a definite limit to the value of new technology. I think that using computers (particularly the internet) as an education tool has some merit, but I think it is only valuable in *addition* to basic education values, e.g., research techniques, basic reasoning, etc. I share his concern that computers are being used as a shortcut, and I don't think this is wise.


Robert Lindeman, MD-PhD

Dr. Postman: I wonder if you could comment on this phenomenon of "Technology-in-Search- of-Applications". In other words, when a technology or method turns out to be less promising than expected, we have a tendency to scramble to find other uses for the technology, as if to "save its life". Death, in this case, being obsolescence.

An example is Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), which showed enormous promise at one time, but now is becoming almost obsolete. "Almost" obsolete because researchers continue to search for applications despite repeated failures.


Scott Shaffer

I think that new technology will ultimately end up creating more of a representative democracy in our country. Everybody will able to have a voice because everyone will be able to use the technology to get their opinions heard. We all know that there are some who just can't get over their own fears enough to speak in front of an assembly, but everybody will be able to put their opinions down electronically and send it to others. It will level the playing field between the politicians trained in public speaking and the little guy.

There is this old cartoon that shows 2 dogs working on a computer, and the dog at the keyboard says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." While this is cute and humorous, it is really true. Nobody knows if I'm educated or uneducated, black or white, fat or thin.

I think we'll see an election in the not too distant future that is decided by a candidate's ability to communicate on the 'net, much like Kennedy defeated Nixon because he was more effective on TV.

This is the promise of new technology, and I hope that out there elected officials realize this and promote it.


Mike McCole

In your last News Hour interview you stated : "And if people are getting divorced and mistreating their children and their sexism and racism are blights on our social life, none of that has anything to do with inadequate information. Now, along comes cyberspace and the information superhighway, and everyone seems to have the idea that, ah, here we can do it; if only we can have more access to more information faster and in more diverse forms at long last, we'll be able to solve these problems."

I have been involved with computer technology and the internet for many years and have never heard or read anyone express or even imply such a stupid concept as that. Where did you get the idea that "eveyone" seems to think that computer and internet communication can be a panacea for social ills? This smells like a straw man argument to me and calls in to question your inellectual honesty in exploring this subject. How's the book selling?


Ted Lehmann

I'm still teaching as a subversive act- ivity. Your book influenced me as a young teacher. The new technology represents a move away from repression and control in schools. Students, many of whom are little curious about what we choose to teach, can access the new technology to learn in dir- ections we, as teachers, cannot even imagine.

Because of the freedom represented by opportunities like the internet, our entire conception of how students learn, what they learn, and how they present what they learn will now be challenged. The greatest problems that I see lie in two areas. How can we have any sense that work students present is their own work? What can we do to keep the spread of technology from in- creasing the gap between rich and poor, be- tween white people and people of color in America and in the third world? I'll keep an eye on this forum.


David Terris

Neil Postman stated that ", it seems to me, has always been about how to learn as a group. School has never really been about individualized learning but how to be socialized..." That is quite a statement. My group didn't learn how to solve equations. I as an individual did. The group does not understand a concept. Each individual in the group either does or does not understand.

Later you state, "And I worry about the personal computer because it seems once again to emphasize individual learning, individual activity."

You are quite negative about the idea of individual learning, individual activity. Why is this bad?


Lenn Harley

There will always be rich and poor. There are inventors and there are luddites. Today it's the evil of technology. Horse feathers. It's part of what separates us from the rest of the animals. We invent, we learn, we grow, we advance. I believe Dr. Postman is no more than a contrarian, and probably making a good living as such.

My question to Dr. Postman is, which force do you believe has caused more misery to society over the past three thousand years, technology or religion?


Christian G. Cullen

Technology can never be a substitute for human spirituality.

Yet in the present information explosion, the technology empowers the people by giving them greater access to the affairs of their government than ever available before. It empowers us as citizens, to vote from a better informed perspective.

Why would anyone want to restrict this access? -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Michael Katzmann, Annapolis MD

It seems to me that the use of computers in schools has been tackled from the wrong end. Most of the effort has centred on the mechanics of operating computers rather than actually computers as a tool to acheive a defined goal. The technology has bamboozled the educators into concentrating on the means rather than the ends.

The computers that most people will end up using, it seems to me, will shortly resemble appliances rather than the cumbersum devices we so laboriously teach our children to use.

Isn't our current path of computer education a waste of time for all those except those few who will enter electronic engineering ?


Thane Terrill

The question is not whether we should have the Internet or other forms of technology; rather, the question is how it can best be used. The Internet will certainly kill rote learning because rote learning cannot stand the light of direct experience. The Internet may bring back the interactivity that television has taken away. Media is not just the message but it creates the message by transforming the world.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Eric Plosky

How do you explain the paradox created by the fact that ethical problems that result from new technologies are sometimes solved only by the development of still newer technologies, which themselves cause ethical problems?


Bart Binning

If we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, and the new paradigm will be focused on communicaiton and computers, will we need to add computer skills to the Reading Writing and Arithmetic that people need to learn to be independent self-reliant adults? Or will the technology become so simple and universal that no one will notice?


John Robert Boynton

In your previous interview you said: "if there are children starving in Somalia or any other place, it's not because of insufficient information." I hope you would agree, though, that it was not a shortage in world food supplies, but military/feudal/gang decisions within Somalia, and insufficient political will outside of Somalia. Can you see the internet as also providing opportunities to promote values: organize a Million Man March, or let young people from around the world discuss what they think should be done?

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