Would You Recognize Frankenstein If You Bumped Into Him?

Our optional faculty summer read is Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. Written in 1982 and re-released in 1994, the book argues that childhood—as an idea or social construct—emerged with the invention of the printing press (1440) and that the invention of modern communications technology–the telegraph, radio, television, and advertising, in particular, caused its disappearance.

Some of you are nodding right now while others of you find this so intuitively ridiculous that you’re about to click on to something more relevant. Hang tight, doubters.

Even if you’re skeptical about Postman’s central thesis, it relies on a contributing thesis that has broader significance for all of us. It’s the kind of thing that, if true, is not waiting around for you or me to assent to it. In other words, It’s not a question of taste—and as much as almost everything these days seems to be decided based on taste (beets, kale and brussel sprouts weren’t trendy ten years ago…) I hope we can still agree that there are some things (like gravity and most other laws of physics) that aren’t up to us.

Postman argues that the technologies humans create inevitably act back on their creators. A relationship that seems one-sided (humans create something—the ax, the car, the telegraph–and those things do what we tell them to do) is actually reciprocal (the things that we shape end up shaping us and our culture, often in profound ways that happen gradually but become ubiquitous such that we don’t question them…and those who do sound like scaremongering idiots or Luddites).

I’ll quote Postman for a bit:

There is a sense in which all inventors are, to use Arthur Koestler’s words, sleepwalkers. Or perhaps we might call them Frankensteins, and the entire process, the Frankenstein Syndrome: One creates a machine for a particular and limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover—sometimes to our horror, usually to our discomfort, always to our surprise—that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but, as [Harrold] Innis [a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto] tried to show, of changing our habits of mind.

A machine may provide us with a new concept of time, as did the mechanical clock. Or of space and scale, as did the telescope. Or of knowledge, as did the alphabet. Or of the possibilities of improving human biology, as did eyeglasses. To say it in James Carey’s bold way: We may find that the structure of our consciousness has been reshaped to parallel the structure of communication, that we have become what we have made.

…Lynn White, Jr., in using still another metaphor to make this point, remarks: “As our understanding of the history of technology increases, it becomes clear that a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter. The acceptance or rejection of an invention, or the extent to which its implications are realized if it is accepted, depends quite as much upon the condition of a society, and upon the imagination of its leaders, as upon the nature of the technology itself.

Students need to develop an awareness of this—that technology has a history and that it shapes the society that birthed it—and all the more so today because the pace of technological change is faster than ever (for worse and for better). Moreover, while it may be true that inventors in the past did not expect their inventions to reshape society, inventors today certainly do. A life of flourishing—a life well-lived, an examined life—is difficult, if not impossible, without regular reflection on the dynamics Postman (and many others) identify. This is part-and-parcel of being an informed citizen, a savvy consumer, a wise parent, a creator, producer (of anything, not just moving images) or a leader.

In a satisfying moment of convergence, the New York Times Magazine recently made the same point in a story about the impact of technologies created in Silicon Valley on cultures outside the United States. In “Welcome to the Age of Digital Imperialism” Bill Wasik writes that:

The underboob selfie [you have to read the article to understand that reference], though, represents a rather different form of cultural incursion. Call it digital imperialism, perhaps, in that the values are arriving not inside artworks made by others but through a tool that locals can use themselves. As Thailand is discovering, the smartphone — for all its indispensability as a tool of business and practicality — is also a bearer of values; it is not a culturally neutral device. (emphasis added)

To put it simply, the smartphone (or, more accurately, the cross-platform software/apps that animate smartphones) is bearing values, right now, into the minds, hearts, imaginations, and habits of students and adults. A school—a boarding school in particular—that isn’t pro-actively equipping its adults and students to recognize, evaluate, and choose the values shaping them is falling down on the job. Well before (or, at least, even as) we equip young people to create and manipulate media and technology, we need to teach them how to think about it.

How do we ensure that we are not only equipping students to leverage twenty-first century technology to improve learning and change the world for good but also to evaluate the ways in which the same technology is shaping them and the way they see and interact with the world. (I’m embarrassed to link to it, but if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to look up the recent Vanity Fair article about Tinder its like.) Failing to do so, to develop in students the ability to use technology wisely, prudently, and with discernment (three interrelated old school words that I think we need to resuscitate) is something like handing a child or young adult a stick of dynamite with a long fuse. It’s going to go bad; it’s just a question of when.  

More soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to buy and read some Neil Postman.

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