Technology's downside exposed Professor shows how "progress" can hinder society.

April 03, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Much of "Inventing the Future," a conference at the University of Baltimore, celebrates what technologies can do in a ZTC computerized, interactive, video-savvy, virtual-reality world.

L Then along comes Neal Postman, an intellectual party-pooper.

"It's very easy to point out what a new technology can do," he said. "I think it takes some insight and intelligence to realize what it can undo."

Dr. Postman seeks to remind us that "every technology gives us something and takes away something." This, he says, is true of every advance, from the development of the plow and writing on up to the latest in computers and satellite communications.

A professor at New York University, Dr. Postman will speak Saturday at 8 p.m. at the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Library auditorium.

"I guess you could say he is something of an antidote," said conference organizer Neal Kleinman. "But his analysis is very insightful. We weren't just trying to get some intellectual Luddite," a reference to a group of 19th-century Englishmen who destroyed labor-saving machinery to protest industrial progress.

"Basically what I'm going to tell them is that we're informing ourselves to death," said Dr. Postman, making a reference to his 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a critical view of television's impact on American society.

"We have developed ingenious ways of getting information of every kind to people," he said over the phone from New York.

"We suffer from an information glut because we have all this information, but we don't have any narrative, any transcendent idea, to let us know what to do with all of it.

"All the information is just junk without a story that makes it make sense. We need such a story to let us know what we should pay attention to," he said.

Dr. Postman's latest assault on an unthinking, headlong rush into what is generally perceived as progress is his just-published book "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology."

The four-day conference, which began last night with a demonstration of "Uncle Buddy's Funhouse," a so-called hypermedia, interactive, computer-driven style of writing and reading, continues through the weekend.

Panels will discuss morality, education, publishing, libraries and

a variety of other issues in light of such whiz-bang technologies. Demonstrations will include a multimedia library for studying ancient Greek literature at Harvard, the Library of Congress' project to put American literature on electronic disks, and an interactive theater using Aristotelian theories and virtual-reality techniques.

Among the speakers are Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins on technology and advertising, WJHU's Lisa Simeone on technology and music, and Garreth Branwyn, an editor of Mondo 2000, the journal at the forefront of what's called the punk-tech movement.

"I want to get people to talk more about the give and take of technology," Dr. Postman said, "how it is good in some ways and dangerous in others."

He wonders what would have happened if, in the early years of this century, the country had been presented with all the pluses and minuses of the internal combustion engine just as the automobile was about to be unleashed onto the American public.

"If we had then had a plebiscite, I think most Americans would have voted to go ahead with the automobile, and I probably would have voted that way, too. But then we would have asked if there were things we could do to minimize the negative consequences," Dr. Postman said.

Some would argue that Dr. Postman is behind the curve, that the post-modern pendulum has already begun to swing away from technology worship toward a respect for the traditional images and values.

"I do think there are some developments in that direction," he said. "I think the ecology movement is one example of a backlash against allowing technology to govern everything we do. But, be that as it may, this remains a major problem of American culture and I don't see it going away any time soon."

Dr. Postman sees the academic fervor over the theories of

deconstruction -- which question whether language can ever convey unambiguous meaning -- as one reaction to the information overload.

"It shows a kind of loss of faith in meaning itself," he said. "People's faith in some of the great narratives -- the creation stories in Genesis, the whole story of the American experiment, even the great story of Marxism -- now seem to have collapsed. I think the real big issue of the years ahead is, to put it simply, to find something to believe in."

Dr. Postman said that he does not know where the new transcendent story might come from. "I love stories like 'E.T.,' beings from alien worlds that make us aware of ourselves as stewards of the Earth. In the long run that might be the next great story.

"But, without such a story, one does see generally a retreat into tribalism," he said, referring to everything from ethnic fighting in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union to the extremes of multicultural pressures in this country.

"Certainly this has the potential of being destructive, but it can have a healthy edge to it, a return to our roots, trying to find out where and who we came from."

Dr. Postman noted that the lack of this transcendent narrative has effects throughout society, from medicine, where doctors struggle with the ethical implications of the technological marvels they command, to politics, where presidential candidates founder as they search for a message that will give meaning to the American story.

"In my book, I include the fact that in Tiananmen Square, the students built a model of the Statue of Liberty," he said. "In Prague, out on the streets in 1989, they read aloud from Thomas Jefferson. These people believed in the great American story."

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