While I never met him face-to-face, Neil Postman (in the form of his writings) was my tutor when it came to thinking about media and culture. I’m the first to admit that Postman would have disapproved of much that occupies my thought, work, and time. I am, in many ways, a contributor to what he described as a Technopoly. Nonetheless, Postman left a mark on me when it comes to considering the importance of media literacy, exploring how technology “uses us”, and in the call to equip youth with the ability to ask and find answers to the difficult and often unasked questions about the Faustian bargains present with each new technology.
As we learned about the ever-increasing amount of information that is available to the typical person over the past decade, Postman was quick to point out that more information is hardly ever the answer to problems in the modern world. We have plenty of information, he would explain, more than an one individual could possibly use. For that reason, Postman distinguished between information, knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the logical organization of information, it is making sense and meaning out of the individual bits of information. And wisdom, it is capacity to use the knowledge in order to make the best decisions, to choose one path over another.
I do wonder what Postman would have to say about some of the technologies emerging in the last few years as well as some of the efforts to help make sense of, organize, and visually represent what was previously just an Earth-sized ball of knotted strings of information. Perhaps he would point out that these are rarely true moves toward knowledge or wisdom, but just information about information, lots of form with minimal substance. Or, it may be that he would accept that these are moves toward knowledge, but he might just return to some of his famous questions. What problem is this information technology solving? Who are the winners and losers when this technology is used? What are the unexpected consequences of this technologies?
For me, these questions are not a call to cease innovation (as if anyone other than a few friends with a horse a buggy would listen), but rather a challenge for us to bridge the gap between our technological advancements and our humanity, a calling to remember that ideas have consequences, that ethics are important, and that humanity has a responsibility to pursue that which is good, pure, noble, true, and right.