Postman_Technology

Postman_Technology - Technology No it is not quite right to...

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Unformatted text preview: Technology No, it is not quite right to say that progress was a gift of the eigh- teenth century. It is more accurate and (as it happens) more use- ful to say that the eighteenth century, having invented the idea, then proceeded to express doubts about it in the form of signifi- cant questions: What is progress? How does it happen? How is it corrupted? What is the relationship between technological and moral progress? The gift of the eighteenth century is to be faund in the intel- ligence and vigor of the questions it raised about progress, a fact that was well understood by the best minds of the century that followed. In the nineteenth century, these questions were addressed, and full and passionate answers came forth, especially about the connection between technological and moral progress. William Blake wrote of the “dark satanic mills” which stripped men of their souls. He insisted that passivity in the face of the alleged movement of “progress” leads to psychic slavery. Matthew Arnold warned that “faith in machinery” was humankind’s greatest menace. Ruskin, William Morris, and Car- lyle railed against the spiritual degradation brought by industrial progress. Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola documented in their novels the spiritual emptiness that a culture obsessed with progress pro— duces. 36 From Neil Postman. BUf/dlhg a Bridge to the Eighteenth Centaur. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). .. _ _. _ .._#.._mfiuu-_wwmmwfiufi_~M Terbn elegy We can get a clear idea of the seriousness and skepticism with which European intellectuals regarded technological progress by reading a letter Lord Byron sent prior to a speech he gave to the House of Lords early in the nineteenth century. The letter sum-— marizes his speech- He spoke against a proposed law which would apply the death penalty to anyone deliberately breaking a machine, as those people called “Luddites” were in the habit of doing. Byron tried to show how the rise of factories made work- ers useless and desperate, and how their way of life was being destroyed. Byron was not a Luddite himself, and, in fact, under- stood the advantages of mechanized progress. But he saw in such progress a tainted bargain—economic growth on one hand, the loss of self-respect and community vitality on the other. (The law was passed, with only three votes against it.) Excerpts from Byron's letter, sent to Lord Holland in 1812, will be found in Appendix I to this book. I recommend it to you, and suggest finther that you compare it to the way in which Al Gore speaks of the future of computer technology. Or Alvin Tof- fler. Dr George Gilder. Or Nicholas Negroponte. Or, for that matter, the average school superintendent who believes that computers will, at long last, solve the problem of how to educate children. Rousseau would have laughed at that, as would have Pestalozzi, the greatest educator of the eighteenth century. Voltaire would have written of it with his customary bile. Of course, there were those, especially in America, who thought that technological progress would foster moral progress, among them Emerson, whose enthusiasm for the future led to his famous remark that “the golden age is before, not behind us.” Mark Twain, fascinated by the technical accomplishments of the nineteenth century, judged his century to be “the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries 37 -——- ———-v Wu.H——-. .._ my... ._ .. -. ..._ __________,___‘__________‘_‘___ Building a Bridge to the 18th Century the world has seen.” And he once congratulated Walt Whitman on having lived in the age that gave the world the beneficial products of coal tar. Alexis de Tocqueville, skeptical of many things he saw in America, believed that technology might bring an end to “the disease of work,” and he was somewhat in awe of the “lust for the new” that characterized the American spirit. There were more than a few who envisioned a golden age in the form of “utopian” communities—Robert Owen, for example, who, having founded an experimental community in Scotland, came to America to found another utopia, in 1825, at New Har- mony, Indiana. Although none of his or other such experiments endured, dozens were tried in an effort to blend technological advances with moral uplift. There is no question that to many nineteenth-century Amer- icans, technology was clearly the engine of spiritual progress. Thoreau, the American Rousseau, didn’t agree, but his objec— tions went largely unnoticed, as did Thoreau himself. Also unno— ticed was the message of many of Mark Twain’s novels, especially A Connecticut flanker: in King Arthur’s Court and his masterpiece, Adventurer aancHebn‘ry Finn. For all of Twain’s enthusiasm for the giantism of American industry, the totality of his work is an affirmation of pre-technological values. Personal loyalty, regional tradition, the continuity of family life, the relevance of the tales and wisdom of the elderly, are the soul of his books throughout. The story of Huck and Jim making their way to freedom on a raft is nothing less than a celebration of the endur- ing spirituality of pre—technological man. But not much of this perspective made a difference to Americans. Technological inno- vation filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organization. And, of course, something of that spirit was to be found, across the sea, in the revolutionary thought of Karl Marx, a true 38 Ethnology child of the Enlightenment and a believer in history’s movement toward progress. Although it seems ironic to say it, Marx’s faith in progress received support from nineteenth-century biologists and geologists who promoted and “proved” the notion of organic evolution. History may or may not be moving toward the tri- umph of the proletariat, but it became clear from the research of geologists that life had progressed from bacteria to humans, from simplicity to complexity, from instinct to consciousness. Although Darwin's theory of evolution (whose leading principle was, in Hurley’s phrase, “the survival of the fittest”) was by no means entirely optimistic, it seemed clear to many in the nine- teenth century that progress was as real as gravity or any other natural phenomenon. And its reality was given special force by the great invention of the nineteenth century: the invention of invention. We learned bats to invent things, and the question of why receded in importance. The idea that if something could be done, it should be done was born in the nineteenth century. And along with it there developed a profound belief in all the princi- ples through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardization, measurement, a market economy, and, of course, faith in progress. As a consequence, the nine- teenth century produced a massive array of startling and culture- wracking inventions: telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, the electric light, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the steamboat, the x-ray, the revolver, and the stethoscope, not to mention canned food, the penny press, the modern magazine, the advertising agency, the modern bureaucracy, and even (althOugh some dispute it) the safety pin. I could fill the next two pages with other nineteenth—century inventions, including, by the way, the computer. In 1822, Charles Babbage announced that he had invented a machine capable of 39 Building a Bridge to the 18th Century performing simple arithmetical calculations, and, in 1833, he produced a programmable machine that is the forerunner of the modern computer. All of these inventions were a legacy of the Enlightenment and its idea that progress is assistedm—indeed, given expression— by the application of reason. But the nineteenth century also car- ried forward eighteenth—century skepticism about progress, particularly the doubt that technological progress goes hand in hand with moral progress. I do not intend here a review of the nineteenth century, but it is necessary to say that, for all of its technological advances, the nineteenth century still had identifi- able traces of the spiritual texture of the Enlightenment. The fury of industrialism was too new and as yet too limited in scope to alter the needs of inner life or to drive from memory the ques- tions raised in the eighteenth century. In studying nineteenth- century America, for example, one can almost hear the groans of religion in crisis, of mythologics under attack, of a politics and education in confusion. But the groans are not yet death throes. But something happened, as we know, in the twentieth cen- tury. Among other things, the idea that progress is real, humane, and inevitable died. As early as 1932, Lewis Mumford thought progress to be “the deadcst of dead ideas . . . the one notion that has been thoroughly blasted by the twentieth-century experi- ence.”1 Even before Mumford, Dean William Ralph Inge, in 192 0, announced that the idea had lost its hold on our minds. It is hard to know why these men took this view so early in the cen- tury. Did Nietzsche and Freud give them a clue? Was it the senseless slaughter of World War I? Did they foresee the tyranny of communism and fascism? There is no point, I think, in docu- menting, at this late hour, what Mumford called our twentieth- century experience. It is enough to say that if Diderot, Adam Smith, and Jefferson had lived through what we have lived 40 Tizcbnaiogy through, they coald not possibly have believed in the friendly flow of history. What, then, have we been left with? We have been left, first, with the idea that progress is neither natural nor embedded in the structure of history; that is to say, it is not nature’s business or history’s. It is our business. No one believes, or perhaps ever will again, that history itself is moving inexorably toward a golden age. The idea that we must make our own future, bend history to our own will, is, of course, frighten— ing and captures the sense of Nietzsche’s ominous remark that God is dead. We have all become eidstentialists, which lays upon us responsibilities that once were shared by God and history. Perhaps because of such a psychic burden, we have held on to the idea of progress but in a form that no eighteenth-century philosopher or early—nineteenth—century heir of the Enlighten- ment would have embraced—could possibly have embraced: the idea that technological innovation is synonymous with moral, social, and psychic progress. It is as if the question of what makes us better is too heavy, too complex—even too absurdmfor us to .address. We have solved it by becoming reductionism; we will leave the matter to our machinery. “In the next millemiiutn,” Nicholas Negroponte tells us in his book Being Digital, “we will find that we are talking as much or more with machines than we are with humans. What seems to trouble people most is their own self-consciousness about talking to inanimate objects."2 But while acknowledging our “self-consciousness,” Negroponte is impatient with it. He envisions a time when we may speak to a doorknob or a toaster and predicts that, when we do, we will find the experience no more uncomfortable than talking to a tele- phone answering machine. He has nothing to say about how we may become different by talking to doorlmobs (and has no clue about how talking to answering machines is far from comfort- 41 - v-“-- -— — -n—-u—-mm...—W ...._....—\_. . .__ . .. _ Building a Bridge to the 18th Century able). He is concerned only that we adapt to our technological future. He nowhere addresses the psychic or social meaning of adaptation. People are quite capable of adapting to all sorts of changes—soldiers adapt themselves to killing, children adapt themselves to being fatherless, women can adapt themselves to being abused. I have no doubt we can adapt ourselves to talking much more to machines than to people. But that is not an answer to anything. It is the beginning of a question; in fact, many ques- tions. I shall fill the rest of this chapter with some of them. They are not, literally, questions asked by Enlightenment thinkers, who could not have even imagined the technologies we have invented. Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin were, of course, inven- tors, and it is fun to ponder what they might think about talking to doorknobs. Franklin, I imagine, would find it amusing; Jeffer- son and Paine rather useless. In that vein, I think of the questions that follow as a kind of “thought experiment,” imagining that Diderot, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau, Ben Franklin, Lord Byron, and other Enlightenment figures are accompanying us on our heady journey to the twenty-first century. I have imagined, further, that they are advising us on our technology, both new and old. And I have imagined that we are paying attention. The most obvious question to be asked about any new tech— nology—for example, interactive television, virtual reality, the Internet, or, for that matter, doorknobs and toasters that “under- stand” human speech—is, What it tbsp-able»: to wbz'rb tbr'r rec-baa!- agy it the solution? This question needs to be asked because there are technolo- gies that are employed—indeed, invented—to solve problems that no normal person would regard as significant. Of course, any technology can be marketed to create an illusion of significance, but an intelligent, aware person need not believe it. There are those in high places and with easy access to our collective car 42 Ethnology who, in speaking of the information superhighway, stress that it will make possible five hundred or a thousand television stations. Are we not, then, obliged to ask, Is this a problem that most of us yearn to have solved; indeed, need to have solved? Do we believe that having access to forty or fifty stations, as we now do, is inad- equate, that they are not sufficient to provide the information and amusement we require? Or let us take as another example talking to doorknobs so that they turn at the sound of our voice. What problem is solved here? Is it that turning a doorknob is a burden? Is it a question of making doorknobs less vulnerable to burglars? Is it simply a matter of celebrating our own technolog- ical genius? I have been told that Bill Gates, whose fertile imagination never gives him or us a moment’s rest, dreams of a technology that would make obsolete the task of locating and then sending recordings into action. One approaches the machinery and speaks the words “Frank Sinatra” or “Pavarotti” or, if you can imagine it, “The Spice Girls,” and we hear them. May one ask, What is the problem solved by this? The answer, I am told, is speed. We are a people who measure our lives in seconds. Five seconds saved here, five seconds there, and at the end of the day, we have perhaps saved a minute. By year’s end, we have saved over five hours. At death’s door, we may allow ourselves a smile by gasping that we saved a month and a half, and no one will ask, But for what? That question was, in fact, asked on another matteru— whether or not the United States government should subsidize the manufacture of a supersonic jet. Both the British and the French had already built SSTs and a serious debate ensued in the halls of Congress and elsewhere as to whether or not Americans should have one of their own. And so, the question was asked, What is the problem to which the supersonic jet is the solution? 43 _ —-——.———-——_-_-m—u——-—H_+o—-.—- a... ..._ an..." ‘MW__.____~,__H._H_. .-.. . Building a Bridge to the 18th Century The answer, it turned out, was that it takes six hours to go from New York to Los Angeles in a 747; with a supersonic jet it can be done in three. Most Americans, I am happy to say, did not think that this was a sufficiently serious problem to warrant such a heavy investment. Besides, some Americans asked, What would we do with the three hours that we saved? And their answer was: We would probably watch television. And so the suggestion was made that television sets be put on the 747s and thereby save bil- lions of dollars. I do not speak here against a thousand television stations, self- activating doorknobs, or even American SSTs. I speak only on behalf of the application of quiet reason to the fury of technolog- ical innovation. 0n the chance that you do not believe me, I pause for a moment to acknowledge that I have a reputation as being anti-technology; in fact, as being something of a neo- Luddite. People who have labeled me as such usually know noth- ing about the Luddites. If they did, they wouldn't use the term unless they meant to compliment me. In any case, to come to the point, I regard it as stupid to be anti-technology That would be something like being anti-food. We need technology to live, as we need food to live. But, of course, if we eat too much food, or eat food that has no nutritional value, or eat food that is infected with disease, we turn a means of survival into its opposite. The same may be said of our technology. Not a single philosopher would dispute that technology may be life-enhancing or life— dimirushing. Common sense commands us to ask, 1Which is it? Only a fool would blithely welcome any technology without hav- ing given serious thought to the question. May I suggest, then, that we be particularly alert when reading books which take a visionary and celebratory stand on technologies of the future. Even if such prophecies seem plausible—especially if they seem plausible—«we are not required to be tyrannized by them; that is 44 —_ ._..._..._.___.____.. __. Mw-..“ ..._._.....-n..._._ WWW—_-Hw,—_hu Ethnology to say, we do not always have to go in the direction that some technology would take us. We have responsibilities to ourselves and our institutions that supersede our responsibilities to the potential of technology. Technology, as Paul Goodman once remarked, is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science; which suggests that advice that comes from people who have little or no philosophical perspective is likely to be arid, if not dangerous. Having answered the question, What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?, it is wise to follow with the ques— tion, Mose problem is it? In the case of the SSTs, the problem was largely a concern of movie stars, rock musicians, and corporate executives. It was hardly a problem that most people would regard as worth solving if it would cost them large amounts of money, or any money at ali. Most technologies, of course, do solve some problem, but the problem may not be everybody? problem or even most people’s problem. We need to be very careful in determining who will benefit from a technology and who will pay for it. They are not always the same people. This is not meant to say that because I will not benefit, I will therefore decline to support a technology that is of benefit to someone else. Not long ago, at a public event, I had occasion to make some film over the prospect of consumers’ investing money in doorknobs that would turn at the sound of a human voice. At the end of my talk, a woman approached me, and speaking softly so that only I could hear, told me of her son who is a paraplegic. Such a doorknob, she said, would be a bless- ing to him. Yes, of course. I had not thought of that. There are uses of technology that do not come easily to mind. Still, we ought to know who is benefiting and who is not. Which leads to a third question, connected to but somewhat broader than the sec- ond: Mich people and who: imitations might be most seriously harmed 19! or technological solution? 45 —— - WF—fimmym WW.— Building a Bridge to the 18th Century This was the question, by the way, that gave rise to the Ludd— ite movement in England during the years 1811 to 1818. The people we call Luddites were skilled manual workers in the gar- ment industry at the time when mechanization was taking com- mand and the factory system was being put into place. They knew...
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