A number of months ago I came across a lecture by Neil Postman at The College of DuPage, a community college in Wheaton, IL, delivered on March 11, 1997, almost exactly 25 years ago. I wrote about a portion of the lecture a while back, but there is still so much from the lecture that I haven’t explored here. Below is one brief thought from Dr. Postman that I think is worthy of our consideration. He says:
Like the brain itself, every technology has an inherent bias, has both unique technical limitations and possibilities. That is to say, every technology has embedded in its physical form a predisposition toward its being used in certain ways and not others.
Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe a technology is entirely neutral or adaptable. In fact there’s an old joke that mocks such a naive belief. Thomas Edison, the joke goes, would have revealed his discovery of the electric light much sooner than he did except for the fact that every time he turned it on, he held it to his mouth and said, “Hello? Hello?” You can’t use an electric light to speak to your mother in Chicago, and you can’t use a telephone to illuminate a page in a book.
In other words, each technology has an agenda of its own, and, so to speak, gives us instructions on how to fulfill its own technical destiny. We have to understand that fact, but we must not underestimate it. Of course we need not be tyrannized by it. We do not always have to go in exactly the direction that a technology leads us toward going. We have obligations to ourselves that may supersede our obligations to any technology.
I wish we still had Dr. Postman with us today. He has a unique way of communicating deep, often complex truths in simple ways such that even I can understand him.
To briefly summarize, Dr. Postman tells us that every technology has a telos—though he doesn’t use that word—or a chief purpose for which it was made. A car was made to take us from place to place, not to re-heat our leftovers from last night. Likewise, a microwave was designed to quickly heat food, not tell us the week’s forecast. Of course, as technology advances, the lines between different technologies begin to blur. Today we have refrigerators that can display the day’s calendar of events, and we, despite Postman’s assertion in 1997, have telephones that can illuminate the page of a book, or even an entire room.
Accommodating Technologies’ Purposes
The chief purpose of a technology matters, however, and if we hope to be responsible participants in a technological world, we ought to know the chief purposes of any technologies to which we intimately wed ourselves.
What is the chief purpose of the bed? To provide a good night’s sleep. What is the chief purpose of the coffee pot? To provide energetic fluid for the day and prevent mass murder. What is the chief purpose of our phones? Ah, now we get a bit more confused. What is the chief purpose of social media? In some way or another, to keep us engaged and never quite satisfied.
We should, as Postman says in the conclusion of the thought I quote above, consider whether or not we have personal obligations about the nature and direction of our lives that may conflict with the chief purposes of the technologies we welcome into our lives. This seems like a simple idea, but I fear it is one we throw to the wind when we are so enamored with a technology that we are willing to align our purposes to its purposes rather than alight its purposes to ours.
To what extent, for instance, have we let the purpose and agenda of the smartphone infringe upon the values and purposes we have for ourselves? A smartphone exists to be used and provide some measure of convenience for a variety of communicative or entertaining activities. Have we let our phones’ purposes supersede our desire to spend quality time with our families or give our best effort at work?
What about social media? Social media platforms exist to keep us engaged, to keep us tapping, to keep us always wondering and wandering but never mentally or emotionally satisfied. Have we let the values of social media overcome our desire to find our mental, emotional, and even spiritual sustenance outside the towering, pixelated walls of our favorite apps?
Rectangular Hand Computers and Flashlights
A couple of weeks ago Hank Green posted a video to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel titled, “Is It All Hopeless?” in which he wrestles with the question, “Do you think we will still be using phones in 200 years?” As he wrestles with this question, he humorously and poignantly addresses the absurd reality that we still call our phones “phones.”
Hank says, in paraphrase, “Calling this rectangular hand computer a ‘phone’ makes about as much sense as calling it a ‘flashlight.’” And well, we should probably revisit Dr. Postman’s above quote, in which he says, “You can’t use an electric light to speak to your mother in Chicago, and you can’t use a telephone to illuminate a page in a book.” Thus, we begin to see why these little rectangular hand computers begin to take over our lives. The agendas, the purposes, the teloi of both our devices and the apps on them have become so wide-ranging, so all-encompassing, that their purpose-creep has begun to disrupt the purposes we attempt to establish at the foundation of our being.
The question is: do we care?
Perhaps we are so tired of looking for purpose in all the wrong places that we are happy to adopt any purpose that our screens or social platforms propose because, hey, at least it’s something.
You can watch the lecture from Dr. Postman below if you’re interested. (I recommend 1.5x speed, as Dr. Postman takes his time speaking.)
As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message”. While I believe that is true, most people have no proactive social media strategy. They are mere followers of the medium. So, it controls them and is really nothing but a vast time-waster.