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    Putting Technology in its Place

    February 28, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    During the Economics in One Lesson discussion {which isn’t officially over because I really do intend to carry on to the finish one of these days}, I got sidetracked by Hazlitt’s uncompromising embrace of technology. It seemed to me that he thought technology could do no wrong. It was at that time that I raised the issue of analyzing technology based on its impact on the heart and soul of a man.

    Well, now we have a new weapon in the family arsenal: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technologyby the one and only Neil Postman. I am on page 40 and I am already in love.

    Postman is making the argument that technology doesn’t just make small changes, but rather large ones. Namely, technology changes the entire culture, including the way the culture thinks about itself. I can’t say his approach is necessarily spiritual in nature, but culture is definitely intertwined with spirituality, and so I think I have a lot to learn from Postman, even in the area of how technology changes spirituality.

    Postman writes,

    [I]t is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not.

    I thought about discussing whether or not our society had “negotiated intelligently” with technology or not, but I have decided to make this personal. Have you, have I, negotiated intelligently with technology?

    Postman gives many examples of technology’s backfiring, so to speak and it leaves you in situations whereby you need some IT support. What I mean is, instances in which technology was invented for a specific purpose, and yet ended up completely undermining that purpose. One of his more poignant examples is the clock, which was, he says, invented to provide precision to a monastery’s rituals of devotion. But the result was otherwise:

    The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.

    A more recent example would be, in my opinion, the cellular phone. To be perfectly honest, I find nothing more annoying than the telephone in general. I rely heavily on facial expression and body language when I talk to people, and the phone is a great struggle for me unless I am talking to a very old friend. Moreover, cell phones add an additional hurdle to conversation by making the audio less clear. I struggle to hear the other person if one of us is on a cell phone.

    But this is not my objection to cell phones.

    When we think about the cell phone, we can imagine what went through the head of the inventor. He probably thought that they would be of great use in emergencies {and they are}. He probably thought that they would help parents keep better track of their kids {which is, in my opinion, an illusion at best}. He probably thought it would make us more efficient {which is does…somewhat}. After all, we can drive and call at the same and and so, presumably, not have calls to make when we are actually together.

    But I say that what the inventor thought would bring us together has actually driven us apart.

    Take, for instance, that lovely cultural ritual we call The Date. When Si and I are out and about, it doesn’t seem to matter the age of the couple, one or both of them spend at least part of their time on the phone. The cell phone, in other words, means that while we can be present with another who is far away, we can be entirely absent from the person right in front of us. The cell phone takes us away, and often rips us from important conversations, its noisy ring demanding our attention.

    What to do?

    I certainly don’t have the answer for you. Si and I have decided to take the good and refuse the bad. We, therefore, do not have cell phones. We have little tiny phones, and they look just like cell phones, but that is not the name we have given them. Saying you have a cell phone signals to folks that they might be able to call you. And they can’t. Not really. We don’t have a real plan, just a simple, pay-as-you-go sort of plan. We often call these phones our Emergency Phones. We leave the numbers with my parents when they watch our children. We call each other if something bad happens on the road.

    But other than that, these phones are silent.

    Staying away from the world of technology is best for us. But for people like Dennis, who is known as “The Most Anonymous Man in the World, 2006-present” knows ways of staying anonymous online. How Dennis stays anonymous is by using programs including VPNs, not logging in and using the TOR browser. Whether it’s following in Dennis’ steps or being simple like us and only using our phones for emergencies, just be safe and secure.

    I can’t say that this is prescriptive. This is simply how we put that technology in its place.

    Essentially, we make it a tool. It is allowed to help us, but it is not allowed to intrude upon or dictate our lives.

    Do you have a technology that you have put in its place? Or one that you think you need to put in its place?

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  • Reply Rahime March 1, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Glad you’re getting to read it, it’s an interesting book.

    I like Postman. I’m working on “the disappearance of childhood” now…fascinating. He starts with a section on the development of childhood, which is a relatively new concept in western history…only several centuries old. I’ve only read that part so far, but it’s good, and I’m almost at the section about the disappearance of childhood.

  • Reply Brandy February 28, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Ellen, I will promise you what I promise all my other friends and aquaintances: I will likely never call you. 🙂 It’s a sign of affection. Really.

    In my own life, the Internet is still finding its place, but then again, so are books. Postman has been pointing out that writing, and especially books, emphasized individual learning, somewhat to the detriment of communal and conversational learning. As a family, we are learning to have a book going that is read aloud, most of our homeschooling is aloud at this point (of course, part of that is because we are little), and my husband and I usually have a book or two that we are reading aloud. I am realizing that this brings book learning, and even simple stories we love, into the family. As we experience them together, they bind our hearts a bit.

    Now…is there a way to pull that off with the internet? I don’t know…Any ideas?

  • Reply Ellen February 28, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I like you for so many reasons. We are also people who don’t have “cell phones.” I have a pay as you go phone that I give no one the number to that frequently isn’t charged up enough. =)We held out until David’s work required him to get a cell phone… and then paid for it themselves! =) I think the real key to cell phones is just not to use them as such. If you don’t call on them to chat, and if you don’t give out the number, then in effect, you aren’t a part of the cell phone culture. Now, giving the internet its rightful place in my life, that’s another story altogether.

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