Neil Postman was right. So what?
Thinking about what it means to live in the digital wasteland.
Hey friends, welcome back.
I have a confession to make to you. As I’m sitting here writing my thirty-sixth entry, I have to remind you of something: I’m mostly doing this as a practice of self-sharpening.
Having confessed that, I’m profoundly grateful to know there is an audience out there who seems to be reading these writings. Still, I also understand that this has given me a reason to dig into things that I love to explore (and buy books that I want but have no justification for buying otherwise 😉).
I hope this is not sad for you to learn. When I started this, I told myself that I would be fine if no one else read these posts. But I have heard from many of you about things you learned and enjoyed reading this, and I appreciate that feedback.
I know my style shifts around, and the subject meanders, but that somewhat comes with the territory and my evolving knowledge and interests. No doubt things were said in earlier posts that I could revisit now or later with more nuance, and we may eventually do some of that, but I just wanted to thank you for following along. It does mean so much to me.
If you like what you’ve read so far, consider sharing with others!
And with that, now back to your regularly scheduled content.
In all these explorations, and beyond that, a question has hung over me. “So what?”
We read things like this from the pages of Neil Postman:
Attend any conference on telecommunications or computer technology, and you will be attending a celebration of innovative machinery that generates, stores, and distributes more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before. To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and the end of human creativity. In Technolopy, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to “access” information. For what purpose or with that limitations it is not for us to ask: we are not accustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented.1 [emphasis mine]
These words, written in the far-gone era of 1992, still ring true today. But the question remains: “So what?”
In researching the individual posts of this newsletter, I’ve done a lot more reading from current sources of thought and critique on media studies. A few weeks ago, I featured a post from one author, and today, I want us to think about the writings of another. Indeed, I even repurposed the subtitle of one of his articles into the title of this post.
In his writings for The New Atlantis, Alan Jacobs has been slipping into the footnotes here for a while now, but today I want to bring out a few points from his piece “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living.”
In this piece, he offers the term “Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT” to encapsulate the essence of the thoughts and warnings provided by McLuhan, Ong, Postman, and their many contemporaries, predecessors, and followers. He summarizes the argument:
We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but they also encourage mob rule… Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).
The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.2
Roll credits. That’s it, that’s the problem. If you look through the books he referenced, you can note their publication dates:
Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry
by Albert Borgmann, 1987
Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich, 1973
The Real World of Technology by Ursula M. Franklin, 1989
So here in 2021, we’ve solved this problem, right? Ok, maybe not so much. Jacobs offers this:
The Standard Critique of Technology as thus described is cogent and correct. I have referred to it many times and applied it to many different situations…
But the number of people who are even open to following this logic is vanishingly small. For all its cogency, the SCT is utterly powerless to slow our technosocial momentum, much less to alter its direction. Since Postman and the rest made that critique, the social order has rushed ever faster toward a complete and uncritical embrace of the prescriptive, manipulatory technologies deceitfully presented to us as Liberation and Empowerment. So what next?3
In his article, Jacobs goes into great detail through complex arguments about where we can go from here.
…Instead of being systematic planners, we become agile improvisers: If the job market is bad for your college major, you turn a side hustle into a business. But because you know that your business may get disrupted by the tech industry, you don’t bother thinking long-term; your current gig might disappear at any time, but another will surely present itself, which you will assess upon its arrival.
The movement through these three forms of conduct, whatever benefits it might have, makes our relations with nature increasingly instrumental.4
Jacobs’ end, extremely simplified, helps us arrive at a vision of a different type of society:
Powerful technologies are present — but unused. They are not destroyed, as the Luddites destroyed industrial machinery. They are simply ignored. Neither novelty nor power are attractive to the residents of this village — or rather, this state that bears the character of a village.5
His article goes on in great detail but points to an end where we effectively recontextualize our “tools.” We go from thinking about the tools we use in our lives–our phones, our computers, our displays–as multifunctional devices to tools that serve specific purposes.
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.6
Newport and Jacobs are approaching this question from different directions. Still, implicit in both arguments is that individuals need to change their behavior for the conditions created by Technopoly to fall by the wayside.
This post is interesting to write in that it feels as lopsided as the situation it’s describing. For decades we have been getting ever more precise in our critiques of the technologized society. We have even had different and varying responses along the way that have pointed the way out. Yet, we have failed, as a society and as individuals, to act.
Just like our embrace of new technologies involves losing elements of technology being replaced, if we choose to specialize in our toolset and be much more intentional about how we use what we have, we are giving something up.
Perhaps it’s the feeling of connection, however flimsy, of being everywhere all the time?
Perhaps it’s the perceived inconvenience of making a shift to a less “totally encompassing” piece of technology?
Perhaps it’s simply time to stop and reflect on how we use our tools and what we want to accomplish in the world?
I would encourage you: take the time to consider these questions.
Consider how big of a problem (or not) do you think the way we currently approach technology is for our society.
Consider what you are willing to trade in exchange for a more beneficial relationship with your tools.
And with that, thanks for reading. See you again next week.