Technology’s Faustian Bargain

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The late Neil Postman was a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, and understood the dangers of a media-saturated, information-overloaded world. A strain of Luddism ran through Postman’s work, but we ignore his warnings at our own peril. Although terms like “cyberspace” and “information superhighway” have become passe, almost everything in this ten minute excerpt from a 1995 interview is worth serious consideration, particularly his observation that

New technology is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something, but it always takes away something important. That’s true of the alphabet, and the printing press, and telegraph, right up through the computer.

His predictions of “information glut” were prescient, particularly his observation that “insufficient information” is not the root of society’s problems. His cautions about the the reversion to tribalism are important, but there are also benefits to be gained by a strong tribal identity. Certainly, to take one example, the Catholic blogosphere has helped reforge a sense of solidarity and identity that had been eroded by years of creeping secularism and cultural Catholicism.

I also find his central question about new technology to be somewhat misguided. He says that, confronted with new technology, the question we must ask is “What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?” Not all new technology needs to be a solution to an existing problem. Sometimes a person with a vision can show us a new way of doing things that we did not or could not have anticipated.

Hi-def television and smart phones are certainly an answer to a question no one asked, but that doesn’t negate their contributions to the way we live. Postman’s point in this case seems to be oddly utilitarian, which is not a trait I usually associate with him.

Some of his points have become self-evident in the intervening years, but in 1995 no one else was sounding the warning. Now we’re deep in the world Postman warned about, and we still haven’t found a way to manage this nonstop stream of information and keep it from overwhelming us.

Recommended reading by Neil Postman:

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

 

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://accordeonaire.blogspot.com/ Gary Chapin

    Excellent! Postman’s jeremiads make fantastic reading, and I’ve often thought someone should tackle updating the specifics of Postman so that his ideas can speak without these intensely time indexed references (one of his first “hit” books was “How to Watch the Evening News” … who watches the evening news? He might as well be ranting against the Victrola.) But his ideas, I think, are up to the minute. Perhaps you have seen http://postmanisms.wordpress.com/ It’s a quirky spot, but always fun.

    A few points about this specific piece: Postman did have a strain of Luddism about him, I agree, but I think this is because he had a weakness for aphoristic speaking. I refuse to believe that he genuinely felt, as he said, “Never listen to any music written after 1850!” But it made a point, and, within certain circles, drew a lot of attention. He enjoyed attention.

    This penchant for aphorisms, I think, is behind the “what is the problem for which this is the answer,” in that, despite how it may have been written, I don’t believe he felt that was the only question one should ask. I feel the overall thrust of the books you cite is that you should ask this question BECAUSE no technology is morally neutral, and because every new technology advances a new priesthood (“who benefits from the adoption of this new technology”).

    Finally, the third graph above sounds an awful lot like, “We should be careful because tech can lead to tribalism, which may be bad. On the other hand, it seems to be working for my tribe.”

    As I sit here typing about postman on my laptop, listening to 250 church music on my iPod … I wish you every success in this venture.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Well, the bit about tribalism is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? For all we’ve urged new cultures to integrate into American culture from the very beginning, there have always been people who hold onto a bit of their tribe, and that’s just great. My people had Hibernian societies and Deutsche clubs and, of course, the Church. The problem can be with the inversion of the tribal model, where people are no longer holding onto a bit of their tribe while also integrating, but holding onto ONLY their tribe and refusing to integrate. It’s a ticklish problem.

    And, yes, Postman’s thought was nuanced enough that I don’t believe his aphorisms were the sum of his views. As a good rhetorician, he would have expected them to be entrance points for a dialectic where those thoughts could be deepened beyond the quip.

  • http://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/ Alex Kuskis

    Tom, I publish the McLuhan Galaxy blog at the above address. I would like to re-publish your Postman essay in its entirety on my blog. I am seeking your permission to do so. Thanks………AlexK

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    If you source it and link it, sure. Thanks!

  • http://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/ Alex Kuskis

    Absolutely!…..AlexK

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