Neil Postman on Technology in 1998

Oct, 27 2020
4 Minutes

I came across this transcript of a talk delivered by Neil Postman about the dangers of technological change. While the tone is pessimistic, I think everyone working in technology should read it.

I'll summarize and add my analysis to the talk in this post, but seriously, you should go read the transcript.

The talk is centered around 5 thoughts on technological change (some I've rephrased):

  1. "All technological change is a trade-off"
  2. The benefits of technology are not evenly distributed
  3. If the medium is the message, then technology changes the message
  4. "Technological change is not additive; it is ecological"
  5. Technology tends "to become mythic"

1) "All technological change is a trade-off"

The idea here is that technology is a double edge sword - it is a tool that cuts both ways.

Postman starts by asking us to consider the printing press.

The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman

What Postman is leading us to recognize is that technology does not care about culture. And in fact, it is often destructive of culture. Is this creative destruction, or simply a bankruptcy of wisdom?

2) The benefits of technology are not evenly distributed

In this idea, Postman mentions that technology brings great benefit to some, but inflicts harm to others.

By way of analogy, he asks us to consider the blacksmith at the dawn of the automobile. Many believed the automobile would bring them more business, but alas, that is not what happened. The automobile was the beginning of the obsolescence of blacksmiths.

When it comes to computers, Postman predicted that the winners of the computer revolution would be large scale organizations like the military, airlines, and banks. But most people would bear some degree of harm.

These people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more than ever reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political institutions

Indeed, if we look at his warnings, they have played out:

  • Tracking
  • Advertisements
  • Control

This reminds me of the Cantillon Effect, which is the phenomenon where newly printed money will first increase inequality before leading to uniform inflation. Quite simply, the new money tends to be received by the rich. The rich will spend this unearned inheritance and cause prices to rise. Eventually, this money will find its way to the poor, but not before they have had to endure a period of higher prices without seeing higher wages.

3) If the medium is the message, then technology changes the message

Postman cites Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message".

He describes how writing first shifted the importance away from memory:

But in a culture with writing, such feats of memory are considered a waste of time, and proverbs are merely irrelevant fancies. The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs

And subsequent technology changes after writing:

The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history

And finally, this brings us to computers:

And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether

While that's harsh, it's very true that the Internet has changed how we write (shorter pieces, otherwise the visitor bounces - with simple diction). Has it eroded our concept of wisdom?

It's a useful question to ponder.

4) "Technological change is not additive; it is ecological"

Like Pandora's Box, once you've opened the door to a new technology, there's no going back - and it permeates through all of life.

This point is all about the idea that because technology touches everything, it's extremely hard to predict the higher order effects.

But because we can't predict the higher order effects, we need to be hyper vigilant. Otherwise, the capitalists who create the systems won't be worrying about their impact on the culture:

The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them.

Postman is talking about television, but you could easily see him talking about Facebook and Surveillance Capitalism today.

5) Technology tends "to become mythic"

This last point is simply to say that very quickly, technology becomes something of a given - that's just the way things are. But the truth is, technology and the use of technology is a cage devised for all of us by those who seek to profit.

Postman discusses how we take the alphabet for granted:

I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is.

And likens it to other forms of technology:

It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers—they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context

This is dangerous - to accept things the way they are, as opposed to question whether we can have something better.


Even though the talk was from 1998, it might be more relevant now than ever. With "Big Tech" under scrutiny, the tide has truly shifted and we're all beginning to ask "has all this technology truly made our lives better?".

I personally believe that technology will march on, whether we like it or not. New mediums of expression will continue to arise. And we will soon be at the boundary of "supassing" humanity, as gene editing and AI mature with each passing month. That's a scary thought.