In 1995, I was finishing my undergraduate studies, and I took a summer course in New York City. Part of the course involved lectures with Neil Postman, Professor of Media Ecology at New York University. His writings deeply nurtured a healthy skepticism towards technology in my thinking.
Media ecology sounds good, but what is it?
Ecology implies the study of environments. Eco(oikos house) + logos(words). Environments in the natural world are well-known, ie. a frog pond. A media environment is not as familiar. It is a more complex structure which specifies and imposes on human beings certain ways of doing, thinking, and feeling.
In the case of media environments (e.g., Youtube, Whatsapp, books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are often IMPLICIT and INFORMAL. You cannot always see them. Like the bottom half of an ice-berg, they are half concealed by our assumptions that what we are dealing with is not an really an environment but only a machine.
In other words, we don’t often think about the environments nurtured and developed by technological tools. We don’t think of a tool as doing any other than what it was designed to do—a shovel just digs holes. But technology gives and takes away from our everyday lives.
Media ecology tries to make these half-hidden specifications explicit and help us to think about how technology shapes our lives. Media ecologists know it is usually the parts of something we don’t see(or think about)that can cause the most devastation—just ask the crew of the Titanic.
Allow me to share with you three of Neil Postman’s most profound ideas about technology.
1.ALL TECHNOLOGY INVOLVES A TRADE-OFF.
Neil Postman called all technological change a Faustian bargain. By this he meant that all technology gives some things to us AND takes away other things from our lives. For every advantage your smartphone brings to your life, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. Sometimes the disadvantage is much bigger than the advantage. Other times, the advantage exceeds any disadvantage that can be imagined.
Now you may be saying to yourself, “Thank you very much Captain Obvious.”
Yet, you would be surprised to learn how many people believe that new technologies are completely unmixed blessings. Technology is all good, they say, and give us the latest and the greatest. The majority of people have drunk Samsung or Apple’s Kool-Aid. They know all the good things a smartphone brings to their lives. They can extol the near “miraculous signs and wonders” a smartphone provides. But you will also notice, if you pay attention, most people completely neglect to mention any liabilities of their smartphone.
Neil Postman says, “This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.”
To understand Postman’s first idea, ask yourself not only, “What will this new technology do?” but also ask, “What will this new technology UNDO?” The second question is probably more important because it is hardly ever asked or reflect upon. That is probably why we are dealing with screen addiction among young people today. There are always great costs embedded in every new technology and culture will always pay a price. Do you know the real price you pay for the technology you use?
2.EVERY TECHNOLOGY ENCLOSES POWERFUL IDEAS.
Technology is good at hiding the ideas it contains. Often the worldviews/ideas are hidden from plain sight because they are abstract in nature. Theoretical should not be taken to mean unreal. All ideas have consequences. Just because we cannot see them, we should not assume these ideas do not have practical consequences upon our lives. The truth is they do.
In a nutshell, Postman’s second point: “To the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
This truth about human nature can be extended to other areas of life. “To the man with spray-paint, everything looks like graffiti,” or “To the man with a ruler, everything looks like a measurement,” or “To the man with an Instagram account, everything looks like a selfie.”
In other words, every technology has a prejudice. Technology is biased. It is predisposed to some things and averted from others. Like language itself, Postman says, every technology favours certain perspectives, mindsets and viewpoints over others.
In a culture without access to books, human memory is of the greatest importance. The elders with long memories of the past, who can share their wisdom, are highly valued. That is why Solomon was thought to be one of the wisest men who ever lived. The Bible says(1 Kings 4:32) that he knew 3,000 proverbs and 1000s of songs—by heart.
In a culture with printed books, or in a culture with Google, such displays of vast memory are considered a waste of time. Why dedicate yourself to memorizing vast portions of the Bible when you can instantly find it on Google? The writing/reading person favours logical organization and systematic analysis over memory. They favour speed over reflection. They favour information over wisdom. They favour the perception of the eye over the ear.
Printed words undermine the ability of people to memorize.
Every technology comes with a philosophy buried inside of it. Once people eat the fruit, they release the idea, and the consequences follow. This point is summarized by Marshall McLuhan’s famous sentence: “The medium is the message.” May everyone reflect deeply on this truth and critically unpack the beliefs inside every technology.
3.TECHNOLOGY IS ECOLOGICAL NOT ADDITIVE.
Postman explains this by using an analogy. “What happens if you place a drop of red dye into a clean glass of water?” Do you have clear water PLUS a spot of red dye? Obviously not. Instead, you have a new colouration of every molecule of water in the glass. It is impossible to separate out the colourful molecules.
This is what is meant by ecological change.
Just like a drop of dye impacts every molecule of water, so does a new technology. It does not just add something to a culture. It changes EVERYTHING about the culture.
In the year 1500, after Gutenberg invented the printing press, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a completely new Europe.
After the invention of smartphones, every culture shifted. It was not the old culture plus smartphones. Smartphones gave a new colour to every political campaign, every family dinner, every classroom, every church service and every industry.
After Mpesa, you did not have Kenya plus Mpesa. You have a completely different way of banking, loaning funds to friends, and sending money to your upcountry relatives. Mpesa has given Kenya a different colour. The whole culture has experienced change as the result of the introduction of Mpesa.
Christians must be diligent observers of these kinds of technological changes. The consequences of technology are always vast, unpredictable and largely irreversible. Christians must be able to discern not only the tools but also the changes these tools create. We must nurture a healthy suspicion of those who want to exploit new technologies to the fullest without acknowledging that traditional values will be dismantled as a result.
Because it changes everything, technology is equally compelling and important for Christians to consider. It’s potential is too great to be left entirely in the hands of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook. We must develop a theology of technology.
Perhaps the best way to view technology is the same way we might view a thief in the night. Technology is an intruder into our culture and traditions. Our high-tech tools, while allowed under God’s sovereign eye, are really a product of our creativity and hubris.
We must keep our eyes wide open so that we may be aware of what it does for us and to us. After careful consideration of what technology gives and takes away from us, we need to proceed slowly so that we may use technology rather than be used by it.