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πŸ’£ What will a new technology undo?

πŸ’£ What will a new technology undo?
Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi / Unsplash

In March 1998, Neil Postman shared five key ideas about technological change with Denver University students. One of the key messages was that technology is always a trade-off, bringing something new and taking something else away simultaneously.

You can read his wonderfully prescient talk and dive into the perspective he shared at the time. But I'd like to highlight where he's asking the provocative question of what will a new technology undo.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, β€œWhat will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, β€œWhat will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Turning on its head our usual way of thinking of innovation as progress might be very impactful. For instance, we might understand that some part of a business will have to be cannibalized to make any innovation happen or that pivotal stakeholders will genuinely be interested in rejecting the proposed change.

Timing these trade-offs is everything.


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You can also read his magnum opus: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.