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 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.

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