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seven questions about technology

When you visit the tallest floor of a London skyscraper, you realise that perspective matters. From the 39th floor, London appears to be nothing more but a whimsically assembled menagerie of various shapes clustered on the banks of a single ribbon of blue, the Thames, bending around the tongue-like Isle of Dogs on its way to the City.

I sometimes wonder what it would feel like to look at time in this way, with perspective and distance.

It sometimes seems infuriating that time is a dimension that cannot be examined in both directions. We can only look back and hypothesize about the future, but there is no skyscraper we can climb which will show us the whole view.

The future humans will look at us, our buildings and customs and cultures, and wonder why we made the mistakes we did. Perhaps, they will try to walk a bit in our shoes to too see why our choices appeared obvious.

They will look at our tablets and smart phones the way we look at floppy disks, VHS tapes and cassettes, with a wry smile and maybe an eye-roll ( full disclosure: I am a child of the floppy-disk age, but even I rolled eyes at cassettes )

Why should we let posterity have all the fun? Even though every generation is, in a way, blind to the shortcomings and dangers of the technology du-jour, that should not stop us from taking a critical look at what is happening.

Neil Postman, an influential voice on this topic, was a cultural critic and professor, a historian of technology and media. In a March 1997 speech “The Surrender of Culture to Technology” (it is available on Youtube) Postman outlined seven questions that we can use to evaluate a new technology.

Before looking at the questions, we should make note of an important distinction between the words media and technology. A technology to a medium is what a brain is to a mind, Postman says. A technology is machine, a medium is a social creation. How a technology is used by a culture is not necessarily the only way it could be used.

The seven questions about technology:

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? There are technologies that are not solutions to any problem.

  2. Whose problem is this? Most technologies do solve a problem. Who will benefit from this technology and who will pay for it? These are sometimes not the same people.

  3. What new problems might be created, because we have solved the old problem? Technologies generate new problems, but sometimes it is hard to know what new problems will be. For example, Postman argued, that the television, while allowing for mass-communication and mass-entertainment, had permanently changed the nature of political discourse. It would have been fascinating to hear his take on Twitter in November 2016.

  4. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by this technology?

  5. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies? What is lost and what is gained?

  6. What sort of institutions acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?

  7. What alternative uses might be made of a technology? What alternative media might arise from this technology?

Postman argued that it was not inevitable that television (the physical technology ) became the commercial television we all know today. He cited examples of countries where (in the 90s) television was not subject to any commercial interests. The crux of the argument is that the medium (the current world wide web for example) that exists of a particular technology (the physical internet network) is not the only possible medium we could have created. How a particular technology is transformed into a particular medium is very complex and involves society, politics and greed.