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Neil Postman’s 6 Questions (+1 from me)

Keeping apace with changes in technology can drive a person mad, especially as the speed of technological shifts seems to be increasing constantly. Indeed that state-of-art piece of shiny tech that you bought today will be out of date before you even have a chance to fully learn all of its functions.

From the car phone to the personal cell phone to the pager to the smaller cell phone to the smart phone to the smarter phone to the next step that is already in development. It is all too easy to get so wrapped up in the sci-fi glitz of these new devices that a person may forget to pause to ponder what these shifts may mean.

It can be disconcerting in a culture awash in technophilic euphoria to attempt to question the devices that people are so enraptured by. Generally (I speak from experience) people who love their smart phone [or tablet, or e-reader, or etc…] get rather defensive when the value of their dear device is disputed. The key is knowing what questions to ask. And, at least for myself, I found these questions perfectly posed by the cultural critic and educator Neil Postman.

Across numerous books Postman advanced the case for a nuanced understanding of technology while pairing this with a wary view of the cultural changes wrought by electronic media. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) remains every bit as apt today as it did when it first appeared, perhaps because the media landscape of 2013 is like the one he was warning would develop (as Postman predicted: “television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine.”[1]) While Amusing laid out a critique against media, Postman’s book Technopoly advances a fuller response to a civilization in thrall to technology, for, as Postman notes: “technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality.”[2]

While all of Postman’s works are interesting, important, and well worth reading, it is in his final work, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, that Postman lays out his 6 questions to ask of new technologies. Postman’s questions do not demand answers, but rather consideration. They are (italics are his):

1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” [3]

2. “Whose problem is it?” [4]

3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” [5]

4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” [6]

5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” [7]

6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” [8]

These questions provide an excellent framework for questioning the new technologies that surround us. And these queries can have a truly disquieting impact, particularly as they expose questions that we should have been asking but which we have neglected. While these questions do not solicit simple answers, the point is largely in the asking.

Certainly there are gaps in these questions and some of the questions seem as if they are simply subsets within other questions (number 6 seems like it could be nested inside number 4). When I argue about technology with people, wherein I generally bring up Postman’s 6 questions, I routinely hear other variations on these questions (notably: “what are the environmental implications of a technological solution?” [which could be nested within question 4]). Furthermore, I frequently feel that the second question should really be “is this actually a problem that needs to be solved?” But for the most part I have found Postman’s questions to be extremely useful, particularly as they are nuanced enough as to acknowledge that many technologies do offer solutions to real problems; however, there is still a tradeoff.

Nevertheless I do have a seventh question that I would like to add to this list of questions. While it may seem slightly comical, I wish to make it clear that I mean this quite seriously.

7. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?

When considering the “rock” in this question one should imagine a roughly fist (or brick) sized object, the type that can be found relatively easily and wielded by a human of average strength. Truth be told the rock is not essential, case in point: the cover of Building a Bridge to the 18th Century shows a television set being thrown from a third story window, and the seventh question could easily be rephrased to “what happens when you throw this piece of technology out of a third floor window?”

The reason that I add this seventh question to the list is to call attention to two aspects of new technologies (many of which may fairly be called consumer electronics): 1. These devices tend to be somewhat fragile; and, 2. Most people who own these devices would not be able to repair them without specialized assistance (assuming that they are even repairable). Indeed, a decent blow from a stone (or a decent fall) will likely send many pieces of technology into many smaller pieces, which will then be fated for the rubbish heap.

Durability is at the center of this seventh question, both in terms of a device’s strength but also in terms of the device’s lifespan. To give a simple example: I can hit my copy of Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (a printed book) with a rock, and apart from a few scratches it will be fine, but if I hit an e-reader loaded with an e-book of the same title, then it would likely be more than just scuffed. While, in terms of lifespan, I am fairly confident that I will still have my copy of Building a Bridge in ten years time and that it will work in ten years just as well as it does today, could the same confidently be said of an e-reader?

Reparability is also an aspect of this seventh question. When there is a problem with your piece of technology can you fix it or must you consult a specialist (a “genius” perhaps)? A device that can be easily damaged and not easily repaired is one where a person does not truly have possession of the device, they must always be aware that should something go wrong they will be powerless without the help of that specialized technician.

The seventh question serves a helpful reminder that though the power systems (economic and social) represented by a given piece of technology may appear as ominous monoliths the devices themselves are not nearly as solid. Granted, planned obsolescence is the tech industry’s own “rock” with which older pieces of tech are smashed to drive consumers into buying new items. At which point the questions are asked anew.

The act of questioning anything – including technology – requires knowing the questions to ask, and in my experience Postman’s six questions (plus my seventh question) act as a solid way to begin to dissect current technological trends.

Granted, I am now forever wondering: “what is the problem to which this is the solution” when I see somebody using a new gadget.

But that’s probably a good thing.

[Another question {an 8th Question} has now been added to this list!]

Citations:

[1] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 2005). p. 80

[2] Postman, Neil. Technopoly (Vintage Books, 1993). p.21

[3] Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (Vintage Books, 2000). p. 42

[4] Ibid. p. 45

[5] Ibid. p. 45

[6] Ibid. p. 48

[7] Ibid. p. 50

[8] Ibid. p. 53

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

33 comments on “Neil Postman’s 6 Questions (+1 from me)

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    Reblogged this on My WordPress Notepad.

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