Neil Postman on Technology’s Faustian Bargain

04Mar12

Neil Postman(1931-2003) was another educator, colleague and friend of Marshall McLuhan, who acknowledged McLuhan’s influence on his own thinking about the media, technology, society, education and culture. Commenting on his first encounter with McLuhan Postman remarked, “I was enormously impressed with the range of his knowledge and also with the intellectual daring that he displayed.” Postman went on to say “I can’t think of a book that I’ve written that I could have written if not for McLuhan.”http://www.kaschassociates.com/417web/PostmanOnMcLuhan.htm

This article is re-published by permission from the God and the Machine blog, follow the link at the end.

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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.   http://tinyurl.com/83hawfd
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

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3 Responses to “Neil Postman on Technology’s Faustian Bargain”

  1. my favorite Postman quote: “…Distracted from distractions by distractions…”

    • There are lots of great quotes in Postman for the quote collector unwilling to read entire books. But I do wish that all citations of quotes from authors was accompanied by an indication of the source, the book or article where the quote occurred. Without that, my assumption is that the person doing the quoting has just picked the quote up from an online quotation collection. Here’s a Postman quote that I like: <em>”The human dilemma is as it has always has been…a delusion to believe that the technological changes of our era have rendered irrelevant the wisdom of the ages and the sages.”</em> – Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change (1998)


  1. 1 Neil Postman on Technology’s Faustian Bargain – Site Title

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