Why Look Critically at Culture?
Revisiting Neal Postman’s Challenge
By Brandon Robbins
In Acts 17 we read how the apostle Paul observed the society of Athens and the cultural influences around him. He looked at that culture with its philosophies and practices and used the popular thoughts of the day as a jumping-off point to share and defend the Gospel message. Paul looked at their objects of worship and their altar to the Unknown God and began to provide the true answer they where looking for. He gave a name to their unknown god and thereby pointed them to the reality behind the shadow they had before. Our culture has its own altars, and most people don’t even realize they exist and that they worship them daily. As with all false gods, people look to the false gods of today thinking that they provide answers to the struggles of daily life.
For example, as a society and culture we have fallen into the trap of looking to the next innovation to help us escape the difficulties of this present life. Many today look to the power of technology to save and redeem them. The question is: “How effective is technology as the god of this present age?” Does it really deliver on the promises it supposedly makes? Does it make our work and our lives easier? Does it really make us smarter? Does it really provide greater community? Does the reality of our culture’s increased obsession and dependence technology point us to the good, the true, and the beautiful? Is our culture truly progressing in the ways that matter? Or does our innovation mask the fact that we are on a downward spiral morally, socially, and spiritually?
For answers to these questions, we need to look first at where we are and how we tend to view this culture of technology, as well as where we have been and where we are going. Regarding the latter, Neil Postman provided us a map for understanding and thinking about where our culture might be going. This issue of Areopagus Journal is not an exercise in stating everything that is wrong with a culture coming of age with technology. This journal is about the importance of understanding how inventions and technology cause change in our culture. Postman calls us to take a step back and think about what these “effects” are, and what are the pros and cons that come along with technological progress. Are we willing to ask the hard questions about where we are going as a society? Most of us tend to stay on the path of passivity and are only along for the ride. This is not an option for the Christian, for we are called to a discerning life, a life in which we seek understanding. We are called to engage the world around us and seek to redeem people and ideas for the cause of Christ.
However, we must be careful here not to be doomsday fanatics. I also don’t wish to sound hypocritical either. After all, I have my Blackberry sitting right next to my laptop and I hope to fit in some Sportscenter before the day is through. We are not nay saying the use of modern technologies. It is not our purpose to claim that it is wrong to use them. But, the question is: Am I (and you) willing to be a culture builder and changer instead of simply bending to the culture? Let us then take this step back and think a minute or two about technological advancement and what it has and has not done. Let’s think about how invention and technology are not neutral and how they can have profound effects on our daily lives. Might it be time to on take stock of our lives and not be passive in our reception of the new devices and teachings of the day? Also, on the flipside, should we not, like Paul, use our current cultural situation as an opportunity for engagement, and not flee from the environments in which we live. The real goal of this article and this particular issue of the journal is not for people to flee from their technologies and their “screens”; the real goal is for us to become active in our involvement with them. We are to understand that technologies should be tools we use, but guard ourselves from becoming slaves to those tools.
Technology is Neutral in its Effects, Right?
Postman reflected on the insights of Lewis Mumford who talked about the effects of the “benign” invention of the clock: “Beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.”[^1] Living on this side of the invention of the clock, it is hard even to imagine what life was really like without the ability to count time down to seconds and minutes. When we think about how daily life was lead prior to the invention of the clock we realize that technology changes the way we live and, yes, the way we think. Technology can shape our understanding and our world. This is one of the important legacies Postman made clear in his works. The wristwatch seems like a benign little device indeed. Yet it has had a profound effect on our world. Before the watch, time was counted more in seasons and periods of time instead of minutes and seconds. There was morning and evening, springtime and fall, no 8:15am meetings to make before your conference call at 9:45am. Yet we now measure time to the second and we have to account for how we spend each one. Lewis Mumford’s statement rings so true today.
Now we live in a culture that has enslaved itself not only to time, but also our computer screens. We live in a world that must have constant contact. Most people today would never leave the home without their smart phone. We need to be at arms reach to every phone call, e-mail, or text message. Our technologies, whether we want to admit it our not, change everything about how we view the world. We are never away, never off-duty. We can forget leisure and contemplation.
“Technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality.”[^2] Postman finds an unlikely ally in Karl Marx who stated that the “hand-loom gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrialcapitalist.”[^3] This line of thought begins to open up for us a sense of how subversively technology affects everything we do. They change the way we live our lives. The question again is: are we active in the changing process or are we just passive. This also provides a sobering caution.
All technologies can have an effect on culture. This is not a call to flee because progress and change are not inherently bad things. But at this point we must admit that if something like the clock changes everything, the reality of how the personal computer, the Internet, cell phones, and smart phones are affecting cultures needs to be assessed.
Technology Helps Us Communicate, Right?
Technology and innovation have led to unprecedented levels of access to information for the masses. Information is transferred and downloaded at amazing rates. About. com estimates that there were as many as 1830 million users of the Internet in 2010.[^4] The tools we use to receive and interact with information more and more define our society and the world. Whether we are talking about our personal or business relationships, technology is often the focal point of our communication and interaction.
In the modern world, the majority of people communicate in ways radically different from how their parents did. The devices we use to communicate and transfer information are indeed changing “how” we communicate. No more long memos and personal love letters, we now have text messages and twitter. Why would the average teenager sit on the phone and talk for hours when they can “instant message” their friends. (Not that talking on the phone is inherently better.) And we can forget about real intimate personal conversations, or the contemplation of our place in the world. Technology has for the most part ripped meaningful dialog from social discourse.
Now it is easy to sit here and blame the newest and greatest devices and social networks, but these are just the last in a long line of devices that changed the way people think, behave, and live. Don’t get me wrong; I love technology (maybe too much). There is nothing wrong with real progress. I think a strong case can be made for progress being a part of the biblical mandate to subdue the earth. This mandate, though, was rooted in our call to glorify God and be his imagers, not simply to make our lives easy and convenient. So we have to ask: Are we thinking about the ways that culture is affecting our lives? When Postman questioned the effects of television on public discourse many years ago,[^5] he focused on how that medium changed the message. One of his concerns was how the image-driven short sound bite medium of TV discourages real dialog and valuable argument. We have now shortened our discourses even further to the 140 characters you get on twitter or 160 or so you can text from your Blackberry or iPhone. Where is the real meeting of the minds? Is there a place anymore for real discussion? Apparently not. We now live in a world in which we are bombarded with tag lines. Our tools are no longer a means to an end but an end in and of them selves. They are not used to help us communicate; they change the way we communicate. But it seems that something is lost in the translation.
Technology Brings Us Together, Right?
The progress of technology has truly changed how we view the world. There was a time when we kept learning how small we were in our world. New discoveries pointed out the vastness of creation and the small place each of us occupied. But we are now beginning to see how small this world can really be. Thomas Friedman took a little trip to India a few years back and was deeply impacted by the technological advances he witnessed. Globalization through the vehicle of technology changed his view of the world around him forever. Friedman stated, “Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery. I returned home and shared my discovery with my wife, and only in a whisper. ‘Honey,’ I confided, I think the world is flat.’”[^6]
The world has indeed gotten smaller over the past few decades. The difficulty of traveling great distances is gone. We are a mouse click away from any part of the world. In fact there is now little need in traveling great distances to make board meetings when you can sit in front of a flat screen and be anywhere in the world in just a moment. With “GoTo” meetings and webcams in every boardroom, the need to travel great distance is all but gone. We live in and through the screen that sits before us.
The fact that our world has become as flat as our screens has interesting implications in our global society. This is one area in which we need to recognize the blessing, yet at the same time see the great concern. Is it really the same to meet while setting at a separate computer screen thousands of miles away? Are these global communities bringing people together the same way a meal in a home does, or even as a face-to-face board meeting does? The lie is that this ability to see and speak over great distances brings people together and builds community. In fact the opposite is true. In many ways we leave the real world as we log on and view a whole new world from a screen. One has to wonder, how deep will this rabbit whole lead? No doubt there is a great level of convenience to restricting travel while retaining the ability to meet with everyone we need to. Yet are we losing out on true personal contact? These technologies are supposed to bring us together, but in truth people often neglect the real-life relationships right in front of them. It may be that smart phones, Twitter and Facebook allow us to speak to a large number of people at any moment, but how deep is this dialog? Technologies do indeed help us communicate in a greater way than at any time in human history, but they do change the way we communicate as well. Real community is lost if we only have it when we sit in front of a screen and not over a table. We are made for community and to carry each other’s burdens and to challenge one another with the teaching of the Gospel. My fear (and I am not alone) is that we have invented more ways to hide our true self than we have created ways to come together in community.
If community-building is the goal, then technology fails to deliver on this promise. We need to be engaged in the real world, not escape the world behind our screens. When is the last time you sat down around a table with a group of friends or colleagues and discussed the issues of the day without looking at your phone or texting someone else? People today tend to disengage the ones right in front of them to engage with people miles away through their screens. Is this community?
Technologies Make Us Smarter, Right?
Postman foretold that in a culture that knows everything the people would know nothing. At first glance this seems a little counterintuitive. How could we not be the smartest, most brilliant, generation of all time? This is the age of information and technology after all. We carry around our devices to access the information super-highway at every moment, ready with the answer to any question at our figure tips. How can it be that too much information is a bad thing? Children today with all their outlets to information are more aware of the world around them, are thy not? Yes, we live in an age in which we can know everything and anything. Yet, is access to information what makes us smarter? The facts about the information age tell another story.
In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman provides a contrast of visions for the future. One is from George Orwell’s 1984—a vision of government with absolute power that would control and limit society’s knowledge. In this vision, “Big Brother” would come in and oppression would rule the day, with people ending up knowing very little because government would limit their access to information in order to control them. The other vision was from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This vision takes on a very different approach, one in which “people will come to love oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Postman believes that Huxley’s view has truly become reality. He states,
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would not be anyone who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become captive of culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.[^7]
The fear that Postman and Huxley shared is that information would become nothing more then noise. In our day information has indeed become noise and is now an obstacle to real knowledge. Everything we need to know is truly a google-click away, yet we retain little understanding. There is so much information, so much data, that we can’t hope to consume it fast enough. What information we do consume we find that we have lost the context. Not only do we lose the context of information, but also most of the information we are confronted with is meaningless to our daily lives. Our culture tells us everything we need to know about the famous—where they ate their meals, who they are dating, how their marriages and lives are as miserable as you can imagine. Why do we need this stuff?
Now it is easy at this point to suppose that this is just so much blather, that I am one of those fuddy-duddies who hate technology and love their books. (I do love my books.) But the data is becoming very scary. More and more of the research being done on the effects of technology is pointing to the idea that we are becoming “dumber” as a society. Our technological advances are not helping us and our children to really know any more than we knew before. In a thought-provoking, “The Dumbest Generation: How the digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future,” Mark Bauerlein goes into great detail to show how, in this great information age, we now know less then ever. The author quotes a statistic from Losing America’s Memory: “While only 22 percent of college seniors recognized a line from the Gettysburg address, 99 percent of them identified Beavis and Butt-Head, and 98 percent Snoop Doggy Dogg.”[^8] What have we lost when we no longer know our place in history? We have the ability to access information, but do we spend our time on these modern devices getting the best information and retaining it and productively using it? Our youth are spending their time downloading songs and watching You-Tube, but have lost their place in time and history.
Now I know that it is easy to blame this downfall on the schools. It must all be the fault of our educational system! But we keep filling our schools with money and technologies and the results are just not there. We must instead put much of the blame on how our society is using technology. “The Internet doesn’t impart adult information; it crowds it out. Video games, cell phone, and blogs don’t foster rightful citizenship. They hamper it.”[^9] And the problem with the knowledge-base of our children is not so much what is going on in academic settings, but what goes on leisure time. “The unique failings of the dumbest Generation don’t originate in the classroom, which amounts to only one eleventh of their daily lives. They stem from home, social, and leisure lives of young Americans, and if changes in their out-of-school habits entail a progressive disengagement from intellectual matters, then we should expect their minds to exhibit some consequences in spite of what goes on in school. If leisure diversions complement academic performance, then the enhancement of them will show up in education scores and surveys.”[^10] The reality is that most of our youth are spending their time with video games and surfing the web for useless information. We have access to a great network of information but we are gaining little to no wisdom from it. This is exactly the line of thought that Postman (and before him Huxley) was pointing to. The idea is that, as societies gained greater access to information, they would in fact know less. This is very counter intuitive. Yet, this is in fact what we are seeing as a reality today.
Socrates once said that he was indeed the smartest man of all. The reason for this was that he was most aware that he knew nothing at all. Now we think that we have all the information in the world but that information is not really leading to understanding. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman raised his concerns in light of the “visual age” as exemplified by the medium of television. What he states about the effects of TV is only amplified by the role the Internet plays in our day. What Postman pointed out was not that the mindless sitcoms made for pure enjoyment are a problem. The real danger for Postman was the fact that news, politics, and education are reduced to their entertainment value. No serious dialog takes place in a 30-second sound-bite, but that is how we receive our news of the day and how we pick our leaders.
Postman stated, “Where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some use.”[^11] What we lack according to Postman is context. Information is just thrown out at us and is not placed into real life contexts in which it has value and usefulness. Television broadcasts are made up of sound-bites for the purpose of entertaining, not really educating. This issue only intensifies as we open up our browsers. We are bombarded with headlines and flashes of images to tell us everything that is going on in the world on the web. The web is a crowded place and websites are fighting for our attention. Information has become nothing but noise to us. We see it everyday, yet we take none of it in.
There is a faulty assumption made by those who think that our new access to great amounts of information is necessarily a good thing. The assumption is that a greater amount of particulars leads to a greater amount of knowledge. Just putting information out there is not enough! It leaves it without a context. The information becomes a headline, a flash, but is not ingrained into the hearts and minds. Our world is far too noisy to learn much of anything at all.
Salvation From Frustration
I began this article with the premise that technology acts as a god for this present age. Ever since the Fall, the work of man has been fraught with difficulty. We live our lives in hope that one day life will be easier. It is a matter of human nature even in the fallen state to long for redemption from this fallen world. The issue is what are we looking to for relief of this present distress. More and more, there exists a temptation to look toward technology to provide that salvation from the struggles of the day. It now seems like an almost monthly occurrence that the local Apple Store has lines out the door and around the block. And for what? People are always looking for the newest phone, a new way to read a book, the newest and fastest computers that will bring new joy to daily life. So how are these things going to bring people happiness and joy? They long to hold these new devices in their hands and, though maybe it is not as overt as I am stating it, there is this underlying hope that this new piece of technology will make their work and their life a little easier, a little more enjoyable, a little more meaningful. We look to these devices to bring about a kind of salvation from our current frustration.
But in the end they never live up to their billing. Life is still difficult and now I spend more time trying to figure out why this or that function is not working and I really don’t get any more work done and it is not really easier at all. No piece of computer or communication technology will bring your life to a state of bliss. If you are hoping that it will, you will only find greater disappointment. This creation groans for redemption. Our work is supposed to be difficult. It is all a reminder that this world is not as it ought to be. One day things will be renewed and the effects of the fall will be done away with, but not yet. And when it does happen, Microsoft and Apple will not be major players in the event. In that day true salvation will come…
How Should Christians Respond?
Why does this matter to the Christian who seeks to engage the culture around him for Christ? There is a basic reality that the world is changing. We live in a world in flux and if we don’t realize that we will not be ready to deal with those changes. The Christian community should be culture builders, not reactors. We should not just be sitting back watching what is going on in the world around us and simply reacting to changes as they come along. We should be involved in it helping to shape the change.
From the very beginning, God revealed that man is on a mission. This mission is not only to fill the earth but also to subdue the land. In this effort man has a call not only to be involved in culture but also to be builders of culture. This mission is called the cultural mandate, and this mandate pushes us to be involved in the world and its progress. True progress is part of the Christian calling and is a good thing. But we must be careful how we view and use the technological advances of our day. As I type on this computer and have accesses to spell-check and grammar-check, I see the value of technological advances right in front of me. But if these innovations become a crutch that empowers me to not learn how to spell or use the rules of grammar, then is the computer really helpful? I would not be using the tool in a proper way. I would be making myself a slave to the tool.
If we don’t think about the effects on family and social life, we become passive. Those within the church are, on one hand, called to be all things to all men, to be relevant in the culture. But we are at the same time called to be culture builders. To change and shape the societies in which we live for the better. We are supposed to be a light to the good and the noble. We should be driving our society to think about how we communicate and how that effects how we learn. We should not fear truth, knowledge and insight. We long to think God’s thoughts after him and see his working in the world today. We need to remember that technology is a tool that can be used to help us. We need not become a slave to it. We are called to be slaves of righteousness. As Paul wrote,
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:16-18)
Brandon Robbins is a Staff member the Apologetics Resource Center. Brandon is also an adjunct professor of Apologetics for Birmingham Theological Seminary.
: Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books), p. 11
: Postman, Neil, Technopoly (New York: Vintage), p 21
: Quoted by Neil Postman in., Technopoly (New York: Vintage), p 21
:https://netforbeginners.about.com/od/weirdwebculture/f/How-Big-Is-the-Internet.htm : Postman, Neil, Amusing ourselves to death (New York: Penguin Books)
: Friedman, Thomas L, The World is Flat. a brief history of the twenty-first century (New York: Picador), p. 5
: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books), p. vii
: Bauerlein, Dumbest Generation. How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, p. 26
: Ibid, p. 36
: Ibid, p. 38
: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books), p. 76
Who Is Neil Postman?
Neil Postman (1931-2003) became famous as one of the most thoughtful media critics in a time of technological explosion. He most well-known work is Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1986), but he also authored many other widely-read books such as Technopoly (Vintage, 1993), as well as some 200 articles for publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine. Postman began his illustrious career after receiving his Ed.D. from the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. He began teaching at New York University and later founded a graduate program in media ecology at the Steinhardt School of Education of NYU. Postman’s most famous works concentrated on the effect of technology on culture. He believed, as he says in his speech, “Informing Ourselves to Death,” that the swift advancement of technology resulted in the benefit of many large companies and government organizations, but ultimately proved to be a loss for the general public. Furthermore, Postman states in this same speech that when people become flooded with overwhelming amounts of information, they lose their ability to construct a comprehensive and consistent view of the world. Because we subject ourselves to this constant deluge of information, we no longer have any framework by which we might categorize a given statement as fact or fiction, helpful or unhelpful. With these ideas always in mind, Postman presented the best and most well-thought-out critique of the information age and the effect of technology upon culture, and remained active for this cause nearly until his death in 2003. Despite his death, his works still give us insight into how the things we make might shape us, and serve as a poignant reminder.