Neil Postman on Technology and Society

PostmanAtCarverFrom a presentation on 1998/02/07 at Calvin College, via YouTube (thanks to George Siemens for pointing this video out!)

when looking at any technology, (at least) 6 questions are important:

  1. “What is the problem to which this is the solution?”
  2. “Whose problem is it?”
  3. “Suppose we solve this problem, and solve it decisively. What new problems might be created because we have solved the problem?”
  4. “Which people, and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?”
  5. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?”
    • (eg. “community” and “conversation” have changed meaning wrt internet)
    • “conversation” – “email isn’t a conversation, it’s just 2 guys typing messages to each other.”
    • “community” – on internet, people of similar interests. traditionally, people who do not necessarily have similar interests, but who must negotiate and accommodate their differences for the sake of social harmony.
  6. “What sort of people and institutions acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?”
    • the transformation of a technology into a medium – the exploitation of a technology – always results in a realignment of power.
    • eg. television gives power to some, while depriving others.
    • media entrepreneurs are the most radical force in culture.

“The answers one gives may have an ideological cast, but the questions [are universal].”

on just getting by

Michael Wesch just posted an amazing reflection on his experience in the classroom. He’s frustrated by the lack of engagement, the scattered engagement. The education through “soul murder.”

My teaching assistants consoled me by noting that students have learned that they can “get by” without paying attention in their classes. Perhaps feeling a bit encouraged by my look of incredulity, my TA’s continued with a long list of other activities students have learned that they can “get by” without doing. Studying, taking notes, reading the textbook, and coming to class topped the list. It wasn’t the list that impressed me. It was the unquestioned assumption that “getting by” is the name of the game. Our students are so alienated by education that they are trying to sneak right past it.

and, BINGO!

They tell us, first of all, that despite appearances, our classrooms have been fundamentally changed. There is literally something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation. In short, they tell us that our walls no longer mark the boundaries of our classrooms.


New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, 1992

hammers and nails

To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, 1992.

the postman delivers

My copy of Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity was delivered in the mail today, thanks to the speedy shipping system. It’s got a fresh, blank Page 61 and I’m looking forward to having it filled up. I also picked up a copy of Technopoly. I decided to not go ahead and buy the other dozen books in my shopping cart in an effort to avoid credit-card-related domestic difficulties…

inquiry as a subversive activity

I’ve been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (more info), and I’m finding myself extremely drawn into it. It’s the kind of book that I may have read as an undergrad, but just wasn’t ready for. It’s the kind of book where you need to be ready to really engage with it before it makes sense. And it’s the kind of book that has me rethinking pretty much everything, and seeing new patterns everywhere. The book was written before I was born, and published only a few months before I was. But it feels so intrinsically relevant and important today – maybe moreso now than in 1969.

One of the chapters is describing inquiry, and what an honest adoption of inquiry would mean for curriculum, education, and society at large. What does it mean when curriculum isn’t predefined, and must be pulled from individuals and groups through the act of questioning, and the process of making sense? What does that look like?

Although much of it rings as important, even critical, to adopt in education, I think a full-scale adoption of inquiry would require more than just a tweak of the education system – it would require essentially nuking every concept of curriculum, and assessment, which would in turn require nuking large parts of entire educational institutions (and non-educational ones as well) and rebuilding from scratch. Sounds nice, but it’s just not practical.

Then, I turned the page and hit something I hadn’t seen before. A blank page, filled with handwritten sentences. At first I thought there was something wrong with the book. Postman and Weingartner had been talking about eliciting questions from the reader. And their implementation was to actually leave room inside the book for contributions from the reader. Not a blank page at the back of the book with “Notes:” stenciled on the top. Not a generic page for random scribbling. A blank page, with the specific purpose of eliciting responses from the reader: What questions would you ask if there was no curriculum? What is worth knowing?

page 61

It’s a simple technique, but shows a few things in action.

  1. The simple act of honestly asking for contributions radically changes the nature of the experience. One is no longer simply “reading” the book – they are helping to write it.
  2. Inquiry doesn’t need to be a Big Scary Thing – it can be as small and simple as asking a question, and allowing all responses. Note that the authors didn’t say “what topics are important?” or “what are the fundamental subjects that should be taught?” – they asked “what is worth knowing?” and that is a pretty simple yet powerful question, leading to further simple yet powerful questions in response.
  3. Starting from a set of open-ended questions, one can start to define some paths for further inquiry pretty quickly. Inquiry isn’t chaos – it’s finding out what matters to the individual participants, and then searching for strategies to finding solutions and answers. It’s not the absence of content, or the absence of direction. It’s placing the focus of the activities of teaching and learning on the individual, and finding what their needs are, in various contexts.

And others have used similar strategies to draw people into conversations and presentations. I was able to help facilitate an inquiry-based session a few years ago with Brian and Alan, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I can remember. Stephen Downes has been doing this for years – I had the pleasure to see his new EduRSS (now gRSShopper) backchannel running at TLt this summer during his presentation.

stephen downes with the backchannel

Sure, some of the responses are silly when there are no restraints placed on contributions. But some responses are deep, thoughtful, relevant, engaging, engaged, and enriching. And the participants care about what is going on.

If inquiry is honest, and participants are working together to identify questions that they feel are valid – and then to answer them – that is a powerfully subversive activity that can change education from simple content dissemination into something that is so much more engaging and relevant. It changes education from being an industrial age “teaching factory” to an organic, adaptive, extensible process.

And I’m not using subversion in a negative sense. From Wikipedia:

Subversion refers to an attempt to overthrow structures of authority, including the state. It is an overturning or uprooting.

page 61

Postman and Weingartner were talking about inquiry-based education, and how throwing out the “curriculum” and instead having students ask genuine questions that they would then work to answer together – that this would provide a powerful, relevant, and highly personal experience and a richer education. When I got to page 61, I did a doubletake. Was there a misprint? Did a vandal insert a blank page? No. They left the page blank intentionally – not even a page number – for the readers to add their own questions. It’s a simple technique, but one that profoundly changes the experience of “reading” a book, much as genuine inquiry can profoundly change the experience of “education”.

I added two questions, and asked my 5 year old son to ask a question of his own.

perception and reality

…we do not get our perceptions from the “things” around us. Our perceptions come from us. This does not mean that there is nothing outside of our skins. It does mean that whatever is “out there” can never be known except as it is filtered through a human nervous system. We can never get outside of our own skins. “Reality” is a perception, located somewhere behind the eyes.

– Postman, 1969

This sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking about. And leads to so much more…