Friday, September 16, 2016

Technology and the High Holidays

  Neil Postman was a professor of education at New York University. He published his last book, Building A Bridge to the 18th Century, in 1999 and passed away in 2003. Some of his works are considered classics in the field of education and I recall reading him in graduate school in the early 1980s.

          Postman was known as something of a skeptic concerning technology and maintained in his final book that many technologies are being created to solve problems which don’t exist. For example, he wrote (in 1999) that Bill Gates was working on a technology “that would make obsolete the task of locating and then sending recordings into action.  One approaches the machinery and speaks the words "Frank Sinatra" or "Pavarotti" or, if you can imagine it, "'The Spice Girls," and we hear them. May one ask, What is the problem solved by this? The answer, I am told, is speed. We are a people who measure our lives in seconds. Five seconds saved here, five seconds there, and at the end of the day, we have perhaps saved a minute. By year's end, we have saved over five hours. At death's door, we may allow ourselves a smile by gasping that we saved a month and a half, and no one will ask, But for what?”

          As a matter of fact, the technological innovation decried by Postman in 1999 now sits on the counter which divides our kitchen from our den, albeit not invented by Bill Gates and not manufactured or sold by Microsoft. It’s called the Amazon Echo and it will play music by a particular artist, in a particular genre or even a specific song upon request. It does quite a bit more than that as well. While Postman attributed the quest to develop this technology to a desire to save time, it seems to me that its main virtues are rather saving space and resources. If I buy an album or an individual song as an electronic file rather than on a CD or phonograph album (remember those?) it does not take up storage space in my home. It does not require whatever raw materials went into its manufacture nor the emission of carbons to deliver it.

          Keleigh and I also both have Kindle E-readers, and as a result we rarely purchase physical books. Since we are both voracious readers, our book collections were literally consuming all the available wall space in our previous home as well as being stacked on floors and tables and piled in boxes in our basement. The advent of the Kindle has let us keep up with our reading without being engulfed by mountains of books.

          Of course there are downsides as well. Digital technology has changed the music business and it’s much harder to make a living as a musician unless you hit it big. (The Amazon Echo actually is better in this regard than MP3 players, because it doesn’t play pirated or illegally-shared files.) E-readers and Amazon have lead to the closing of the Borders bookstore chain as well as many local, independent booksellers.

          Postman was not calling for a moratorium on technology but rather reminding us that while it has benefits, there are costs as well. He posed an important question: “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?“

          Technology is not going away, and in our religious school we have harnessed it to provide what I firmly believe is a better education and a better experience than was provided before. A balanced approach is called for. But as the High Holidays approach, Postman’s questions still echo. Who benefits and who is harmed? And most importantly, what are we going to do with the time we save?

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