computers and culture, using the book "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology," by Neil Postman, and other resources. Specifically, it will answer the questions: How have computers and computer networks changed human thinking, behavior, and lifestyle? What has been gained? What has been lost? What are the advantages of computers in communication? In education? In entertainment? In the economy? What are the disadvantages in these areas? Is computer technology creating winners and losers, or furthering social stratification? Have we become too dependent on computers? Do computers limit social skills and physical activity to a damaging degree? Why or why not? Computers have changed our national culture and our global culture, and not always for the better. When they were first developed for the mass market, computers were meant to increase productivity and cut down on paper work. Today, computers have permeated every section of our lives, and our culture.
Computers and Culture
Neil Postman states in his book "Technopoly," "Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology" (Postman 71). Today, our society is indeed a technopoly, for we not only deify technology, we have become a nation dependent on our technological gadgets. From cell phones to PDAs, we are constantly "plugged in" to our computers, our workplace, and our families. One expert in Postman's book sums up our love of technology simply "We're a switched-on, tuned-in, visually oriented society'" (Postman 108). Technopoly exits and it is us.
Initially, computers were developed for government and extremely large businesses. These machines were huge, costly, and did not seem to have any practical personal use. Personal computers first entered the consumer marketplace in 1973, but it was not until 1981, when the IBM corporation launched its' IBM PC. In 1982, "Time" magazine took the unprecedented step of naming the IBM PC "man of the year," the first time a machine had ever won the distinction (Wessells 229- 233). The "personal computer" took off, and today, personal computers are not a luxury, they are considered a necessity in most homes. As one popular culture expert notes,
Over the past forty years, the electronic computer has made a meteoric ascent into the lives of millions. Once the rare and sacred objects of the high priests of engineering, computers have become familiar household items and indispensable tools in enterprises such as business, education, government, and medicine. In short, computers have become woven into the daily fabric of Western civilization (Wessells 229).
Thus, computers are a large part of our daily lives, and they have forever changed human thinking, behavior, and lifestyle. For example, even ten years ago, computers were still a luxury, especially to lower income families and individuals. However, the prices on computers have dropped dramatically, and today, just about anyone can afford a basic computer. Human thinking and behavior have changed dramatically as computers have "woven their way into the daily fabric" of our lives. Today, you can shop at home on the computer, never setting foot outside your door. You can conduct your business almost entirely by computer, and never see the supplier in Hong Kong or the buyer in Bulgaria. Our lifestyles have become much more sedentary - we lack of motivation to leave the computer screen, because these screens are mesmerizing, as one historian notes. "Whether as a TV screen or computer monitor, the cathode ray tube remains a two-dimensional mosaic display favoring acoustic simultaneity. Because the user of the video display terminal, like the TV viewer, becomes the screen, he or she experiences inner, convulsive sensuous happenings (Berg 126).
We are constantly searching for better, faster, and more efficient ways to complete our jobs and make our lives easier. The computer fits these needs perfectly, but unfortunately, the computer is also helping to "dumb down" generations of users. For example, because of the proliferation of computers in homes and schools, many children do not read as much - they spend their time playing video games or surfing the Internet. Postman wrote his book in 1992, and today, his works seem prophetic. "Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?" (Postman 17). Social skills have fallen dramatically. Many children and young adults today have no idea how to relate to anything other than a computer or television screen, and studies have shown that violence, many believe due to violent computer games and media, is dramatically up in children. Children are evolving because of this addiction to technology, as one expert notes about the increase in violence.
A the disturbing escalation of violent acts committed by youngsters, the increasingly early entry of kids into consumerism, the complex mix of new opportunities and risks provided to youth by the Internet, and the ongoing need for assessing and changing government policies concerning children and the media (Kinder 3).
Part of this, as Postman clearly notes, is due to a family that allows computers to control it, rather than controlling the computer usage in the family. "A family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all, and may lay claim to the name only by virtue of the fact that its members share biological information through DNA" (Postman 76). However, in many families, the parents are as taken up with computers and information technology as their children, and herein lies another part of the problem. The parents are tied to their business through their cell phones, PDAs, and laptops, and so, they are as wrapped up in computing as their children, and no one can see the light of day.
Computers have changed the way many families relate to each other, and have created a world so focused on technology; it is difficult to see the people for the computer chips. As one cultural expert states,
Today the young are conditioned by radio and television long before they come near the visuality of the printed book. Moreover, the perceptual effects of low-definition (auditory-tactile) television and other electronic media, he argues, have retribalized Western cultures by changing their sensory, psychic, and social lives (Berg 123).
We have lost a bit of ourselves in the process, along with our ability to relate to the sensory and psychic stimulation around us. Postman sums up this social inadequacy quite well: "Technopoly's experts tend to be ignorant about any matter not directly related to their specialized area" (Postman 87). We may be experts at the keyboard, but away from it, our society is changing dramatically, and we cannot relate to each other.
Clearly, the development of computers, their continual evolution, and their place in the fabric of our lives has many advantages. The Internet has literally transformed the way we do business, and the way we educate today. While the Internet is certainly not gospel, it contains an absolute multitude of information on just about every subject imaginable. Children can research term papers, surf the Internet for educational and reference materials, and create a much more comprehensive analysis of information by using a computer in the school or home. Communication is instantaneous via email and instant messaging. What used to take days or even weeks now can take a few minutes to a few hours. For example, it used to take days to mail an airmail letter across the globe. The Internet has literally changed how and where we do business, and is a miraculous source of information and inspiration.
In addition, computers have changed entertainment and how we view the world. Is it real, or is it computer generated? This could be the motto of theatregoers and television viewers around the world. The computer-generated special effects visible in film and television are often difficult to tell from the real thing, and have permeated our culture to such a degree that an action hero such as Arnold Schwarzenegger can become a governor. The lines between reality and fantasy have become blurred, and the computer has certainly helped create much of the indistinction between reality and something created via a computer program. As Postman wryly notes, "The computer is almost all process. There are, for example, no 'great computerers,' as there are great writers, painters, or musicians. There are 'great programs' and 'great programmers,' but their greatness lies in their ingenuity" (Postman 118).
Undoubtedly, computers, and the technology that has grown up around them has been critical in creating better health care, more jobs in the computer industry, and how we communicate both visually and mentally. Computers have served vital purposes all around the world. Computers have also created differences in our culture that cannot be denied. As Postman continues,
That American technology has now embraced the computer in the same hurried and…