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Technology and Education (1) – Introduction

It is my conviction that the greatest threat to education is the breakdown of the family. The family is an institution ordained by God to welcome new lives into this world and lead them into maturity. Our society, even when we retain the form of the family, has largely rejected God’s plan and purpose for the family. This affects everything(!), not least of all education. I have addressed this before and I am sure I will address this again, but that is not the purpose of this series of messages. Instead, I want to discuss the effects of technology. It is my conviction that, second only to the breakdown of the family, contemporary technology is the greatest threat to education. It is not that that there is anything inherently wrong with technology—it is my judgment that technology is morally neutral. But the ways in which we *often* use a variety of modern technologies make true education difficult and at times even impossible.

Over the next nine school weeks I will be looking at the effects of modern technology primarily by comparing a society grounded in words and ideas with one grounded in images and emotions. (Note: nearly all of my analysis comes from Neil Postman, especially his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. This book, published a quarter of a century before the smart phone, may not seem relevant, but I think its analyses are helpful and insightful and I rely heavily on them in these essays.) After that I will consider modern technology’s direct effects on schools and also its indirect effects on things like friendships, parenting, and marriage.    

The single largest shift brought on by contemporary technology is that we have transitioned from a word-based society to one grounded in images. Consider, for example, a simple photograph. According to Neil Postman, unlike words and sentences, the photograph does not present us an idea or concept of the world. To paraphrase a postmodern philosopher whose name escapes me, a photograph doesn’t say, it simply is. Photographs evoke emotions and may conjure various ideas in our minds, but we cannot use photographs to communicate anything concrete unless we use language to convert the image to idea. For example, a photograph can give us a picture of this or that man but not of “Man” in the abstract; it can give us an image of a particular tree or trees, but not of “Tree”. Likewise, we can take a picture of a mountain or a seashore, but no image can encompass or even communicate “Nature” or “Sea”. In the same way abstractions such as truth, honor, wealth, and falsehood cannot be discussed via pictures. In essence, a photograph presents the world as object, while language presents the world as idea. The photograph makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended unambiguous commentary. It offers no propositions to refute, so it is not refutable. By contrast, language makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions.

This is not to say that words are good and images are bad! Both have a purpose, but they often communicate different things and when they do communicate the same things they communicate them very differently.

Consider the difference between, say, a book and an Instantgram photo (or Tic Tac video or a meme). It takes time to write a book and it takes time to read one. Reading a book requires us to concentrate as we read and remember what we have read for the book to be comprehensible. We must analyze and organize our thoughts if we are to have a meaningful discussion of its contents or make a judgment about its merits. Authors write books in an attempt to make their thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of past. For this reason civilized people everywhere have considered the burning of a book a vile form anti-intellectualism.

Contrast this with something posted on social media. The format and algorithms of most sites demand the de factor destruction of the contents (e.g. you might read a book from eight years ago, do you routinely read Tweets from eight years ago? Does your Tic Tac feeder routinely send you posts from years ago or does it tend to direct you to the new or “trending”?) Social media, like cable news, is suited only to the flashing of messages; each one being quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.

In theory, we could communicate the same types of things via social media as we do in books, but, according to Neil Postman, mediums of communication are not neutral for the medium of communication restrains and even dictates the content of a message. In theory one could write War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov in a series of tweets of Facebook posts, but that will never happen because those mediums, while they technically allow it, don’t encourage (and even actively discourage) that type of communication. As more and more of our discourse moves over to image-based mediums (e.g. social media, television, etc.) and away from print based ones (e.g. books and journals) the content of our discourse—whether that discourse be religious, political, advertising, etc.—must change to fit these new mediums. Postman believed this change was absolutely detrimental to democracy and capitalism as well as sincere Christian faith; what is more, he thought we had already crossed the point of no return as early as 1985 when he wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. In these messages I am not going to talk about economics, politics, or religion, but rather focus my attention to how changes in communication technology effect education.