Technology’s Faustian Bargain

The late Neil Postman was a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, and understood the dangers of a media-saturated, information-overloaded world. A strain of Luddism ran through Postman’s work, but we ignore his warnings at our own peril. Although terms like “cyberspace” and “information superhighway” have become passe, almost everything in this ten minute excerpt from a 1995 interview is worth serious consideration, particularly his observation that

New technology is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something, but it always takes away something important. That’s true of the alphabet, and the printing press, and telegraph, right up through the computer.

His predictions of “information glut” were prescient, particularly his observation that “insufficient information” is not the root of society’s problems. His cautions about the the reversion to tribalism are important, but there are also benefits to be gained by a strong tribal identity. Certainly, to take one example, the Catholic blogosphere has helped reforge a sense of solidarity and identity that had been eroded by years of creeping secularism and cultural Catholicism.

I also find his central question about new technology to be somewhat misguided. He says that, confronted with new technology, the question we must ask is “What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?” Not all new technology needs to be a solution to an existing problem. Sometimes a person with a vision can show us a new way of doing things that we did not or could not have anticipated.

Hi-def television and smart phones are certainly an answer to a question no one asked, but that doesn’t negate their contributions to the way we live. Postman’s point in this case seems to be oddly utilitarian, which is not a trait I usually associate with him.

Some of his points have become self-evident in the intervening years, but in 1995 no one else was sounding the warning. Now we’re deep in the world Postman warned about, and we still haven’t found a way to manage this nonstop stream of information and keep it from overwhelming us.

Recommended reading by Neil Postman:

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future