I note that, since the recent IATEFL conference in Brighton, there’s a renewed interest in Postman and his views on technology. Someone even seems to have created a Twitter account specifically to regale us with his views on the transistor radio, the hit parade, cyberspace and more. But the point about Postman (aside from the creepy smile) is that he ceased to be relevant a while ago. Postman lived before Web 2.0, before the technology became more useful more creative, more productive and more social.
He may have had some relevance in the 1990s, but I can’t see what he has to do with the realities of 2011. When I see someone posting a link to a video of Postman warning of the perils of ‘cyberspace’, I simply have an image of my dad telling me how destructive those mop-haired so-called pop stars in the ‘hit parade’ were going to be on my life and my education. And yet somehow I survived…
So let’s examine the video that everyone thinks is so very clever…
[ you'll find it as part of this lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uglSCuG31P4 ]
[ Mr Postman wants you to buy his outdated ideas... ]
In his video he relates how he went to buy a car and was informed that he would have to buy a car with cruise control and electric windows. He then labours his famous question, “What is the problem that this technology solves?’ And we all laugh and nod our heads sagely and begin to question the value of these things. But then we’re middle-class people….
Let’s take cruise control. If you’re a middle-class academic you probably drive a pleasant half hour every day to the office where you think clever thoughts about technology. Perhaps you drive the kids to school on the way. Your poor clutch foot doesn’t have time to get tired, even if you’re driving in heavy traffic and changing gear often.
But let’s imagine you’re a long-distance trucker in Australia…
You’re probably paid a lot less than Mr. Postman, you have deadlines to meet, and you can’t afford to take a ‘clutch break’ every half hour over an agreeable latte with your clever academic chums. No, to earn your minimum wage you have to keep driving to the extent the law allows. So what’s the point of keeping your foot on the clutch for all that time? It’s tiring, causes muscular strain right through the leg, and when you’re old you’ll be in constant pain while Postman reminds you how useless it would have been to have cruise control.
And let’s examine the electric windows argument more closely. Again, Postman doesn’t see the point of electric windows, because he’s never had a problem with winding them up. You would have thought an academic could easily have envisaged the following scenario…
It’s a cold, slightly rainy day and you give a colleague a lift. The colleague winds the passenger window down a bit, because he wants to smoke. When he gets out at work, he leaves the window open. And you’re driving off, but the rain gets heavier and it starts to come in through the window. And oh, but it’s cold. You lean over to try to wind the window up, but it’s a bit far to reach easily. But, damn – it’s cold and wet. The road ahead is clear so you take a chance, lean over a little more to wind the window up, taking your eyes off the road for three seconds.
Just enough to knock down the child who is chasing his ball into the road. Now, you see, that wouldn’t happen if you had electric windows. So there’s another problem solved.
This probably sounds glib, but it’s not. The fact that Postman couldn’t put himself in the head of someone having to drive hundreds of miles to earn a living, the fact that he couldn’t envisage a situation in which electric windows might save a life – well, to me it shows a man out of touch with reality, safe in his tidy little academic world, and playing for laughs because it allows the ‘principled tech use evaluators’ a crutch with which to purvey their ill-informed tosh.
It reminds me of a comment over on the dogme group a while back, about the benefits of washing machines when they use so much water and detergent. I’d rather ask generations of people forced to wash by hand than listen to Mr. Postman. They would seem more reliable as evaluators of the utility of such things.