27 February 2013

Relationship Advice from Neil Postman

Cover image from neilpostman.org
Although he wasn't the most vocal participant during last weekend's roundtable discussion, Neil Postman still contributed plenty of insight regarding the culture and (digital) technology relationship. In many ways, Postman's work maintains a conversation that found popular expression in Marshall McLuhan's cultural critique of technology. Postman's roundtable colleague Sherry Turkle branches off from this broader topic to tackle a more specific set of concerns within the culture-technology relationship. Much of what Sherry Turkle says about robots is easily (and near seamlessly) applicable to education/technology (as well as other areas, but education/technology is my current focus). Despite her impressively detailed focus on robots and relationships, Turkle is really addressing some of the more pressing questions regarding technology's ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives. Hope, promise, progress, connectivity, alienation -- all of these are attributes to the major stories about the dynamic culture--technology relationship. Certainly not exclusive to robots, digital technology, or 21st century scenarios, these adjectives are broadly applicable to historical and sociological questions concerning technology. Just as the themes of Alone Together find expression during conversations regarding educational technology, so too does Postman's examination of the American tendency to turn over to technology.

Postman's book is fascinating, but I think he starts off on the wrong foot. Perhaps a byproduct of the social/cultural environment in which he was writing, but Postman's focus on technology vs. people fails to appreciate the nuance of the dynamic relationship that binds technology and people. What's with the front cover comment from the Dallas Morning News? "A provocative book...a tool for fighting back against the tools that run our lives." Really? A tool for fighting other tools? Granted this blurb cannot be attributed to Postman, but it seems to suggest a mode (or mood) for interpreting Postman's text. Moreover, it isn't really (at least not any longer) about fighting against technology. Is it? At least I hope not.

No longer does it seem helpful to frame this as an "us vs. them" scenario. We all have (and continue to make) choices regarding technology. Sometimes these choices aren't readily apparent, nor often easy, but we must acknowledge and embrace our agency in this situation. We must be critical and engaged consumers/users of technology. It is important not to be automatically convinced of technology's inherent-and-always awesomeness. Technology is not always an unmixed blessing. Sometimes technology is great. Yet, it can just as easily be good, ok, bad, awful, or any number of other adjectives. In short, the awesomeness (clearly an abstract term, but generally refers to some combination of utility, reception, public opinion, innovativeness, etc.) of technology depends. Upon what? Well, a lot of different variables: timing, context, application, infrastructure, etc.

Rather somberly, Postman explains the complex intertwining of information and technology:
Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without  defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty to imagining reasonable futures.
A tricky situation to say the least! However, I cannot agree completely with the dire inevitability presented in Postman's example. Simply because we start down a path doesn't mean we must continue along that path forever. Even if our relationship with information and technology is flawed, can't we initiate a change? Isn't that what this and other projects are seeking to accomplish? Sure, such change requires leadership and thoughtfulness, but it must be possible!

We (individually and collectively) must take some measure of responsibility. Humans are a part of the technological equation. Postman suggests that technology destroys our humanity. Well, yes and no. Maybe. It seems more accurate to say that technology creates a new (mode/form/conception of) humanity. New humanity thus creates new technology. And so on ad infinitum. Nothing is static.

Initially, I wanted to wholly disagree with Postman. The early parts of the book present a very bleak binary. As the text evolves, Postman reveals more nuance and displays a deep understanding of the culture-technology relationship. Early sections of the book convey a technology vs. culture binary that quite deliberately (or so it seems) incites a reaction from readers. Emotionally and intellectually invested in the controversy portrayal of technology in the first half of the book, readers are perhaps more likely to read feverishly, pulling out intellectual nuggets, scribbling marginalia, asking questions, making connections. Or that might be the case if your reading of Technopoly was in anyway similar to mine. Maybe the tone and tenor conveyed in the early sections of the book are designed to hook the reader?

Postman focuses on our (in the context of Technopoly, pronouns refer to America and Americans) tendency to be generally (and often overwhelmingly) enthusiastic about new technologies. Fair enough. Broadly speaking, we (writ large) do seem to focus on what new technologies will do for us (positive), but rarely consider what such technologies will undo (negative). Yet, there is more to the technology-culture relationship than unquestioning embrace. Clearly we should not seek to deify technology (as Postman fears we were already doing in the 1990s), it is not omniscient (although arguably omnipresent), but certainly technology has some role to play in our lives and learning. Right? Or is desire to include technology the consequence of my position within the technological-cultural matrix?

Just as with any healthy interpersonal relationship, it is important to cultivate individual personas. Separate, but connected entities, digital and analog (or perhaps more accurately, non-digital) technologies each have a place in the vast landscape of learning. It's not about choosing digital at the exclusion of analog (or vice versa). Perhaps it may have seemed this way during the early stages of the internet era, but no longer can we operate within an outdated binary construct. We live in an age that can benefit from approaches that incorporate digital and non-digital. Each has its benefits. Each has its consequences.

From physical text with handwritten scribbles to digital medium with embedded content and hyperlinked connectivity, this is a clear example of the digital/analog merger

Some of my marginalia (can you call it that when it spills well beyond
the confines of the margin?) from the first few pages of Technopoly.
By no means is this to suggest that Postman advocates the elimination of technology. For Postman it isn't technology in itself that it problematic. Rather than originating from artifact, the trouble lies with our cultural beliefs about technology. Postman certainly raises some insightful points about our conceptualization of technology:
  • technology is assumed to be our friend
  • technology does not invite close examination of its own consequences
  • technology is both friend and enemy (a frenemy if you will)
Strong language, but the point is well taken. An unexamined embrace for all technology is a surefire recipe for disaster (or at least dissatisfaction). In essence, all technological change is a Faustian bargain (simultaneously gives and takes). Among other things, Postman encourages us to ponder the sacrifices (intellectually, culturally, etc.) we make when so vehemently and unquestioningly embracing technology. Postman is adamant about technology's Faustian role. Not only does it solve problems, but technology also creates them. And so, in a seemingly endless cycle -- to address new problems we create new technologies, which give rise to new problems requiring new technological solutions....

Richard Roland Holst's 1918 poster promoting
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play Faust
While this role as giver-and-taker may seem to betray some of the bifurcation presented in the initial section of the book, it is in fact a byproduct of Postman's borderline Luddism. While not bestowing the title of anti-technologist upon himself, Postman does embrace his role as technological indifferentist. Not a Luddite, but certainly not a technological-optimist, Postman articulates some important things to consider when evaluating our relationship with technology:
  • technical progress is not humanity's supreme achievement
  • technology is not the solution to our most profound dilemmas
  • information is not an unmixed blessing
The final of these points is particularly complex with respect to education. Think about the various initiatives to "improve" education from recent years. The majority involve some technological component. For example, there is a ambitious program that aims to introduce laptops into the world's poorest classrooms. Now, don't get me wrong, I think opening the worldwide web (arguably this generation's greatest learning tool) to a vast assortment of learners who have previously had little or no access to the internet is an outstanding idea (although certainly not an educational cure-all). Additionally, it is evident that the thinkers behind One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) put serious thought into program design, implementation, and sustainability in order to foster "collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning." Despite the great benefits attributed to OLPC, any education program that relies upon technology (in this case laptops) is bound to encounter some unique problems (e.g. cost, support, training, hardware/software, cultural appropriateness, etc.). Still though, I don't share Postman's lament regarding our inability to defend ourselves against inevitable technological deification. No doubt there are some that (consciously or unconsciously) deify technology as an educational savior. OLPC seems to counter this tendency by stressing, "It’s not a laptop project. It’s an education project." Emphasizing their role as an educational organization that consciously decided to employ technology to accomplish its educational aims (not vice versa), OLPC seems to avoid (or at least minimize) technological deification. The decision-making processes and belief systems that influence technology's cultural role that are most concerning for Postman. We must be skeptical users/employers of technology. Whether in the classroom, boardroom, laundry room, or any other room, we must always ask why. Moreover, we must also remain open to alternative solutions (be they digital, analog, or some other technological variant).

Given my complex relationship with Neil Postman, I'm going to let this ruminate for a bit and return to Technopolgy in a few days. More thoughts on Postman, technology, and education forthcoming...