New Technology and Information Overload: A Few Questions from Neil Postman

Neil Postman, media and cultural critic.

Neil Postman, media and cultural critic.

Earlier today I was working on preparing materials for some training sessions and I was reminded of something said by Neil Postman, a very important media critic and social theorist who never lived long enough to see the full development of “cyberspace,” the term used to describe our online world in the 1990s.

Postman, during a 1995 interview on the PBS NewsHour, was asked, “What images come to your mind when you, when you think about what our lives will be like in cyberspace?”

Postman answered,”Well, the, the worst images are of people who are overloaded with information which they don’t know what to do with, have no sense of what is relevant and what is irrelevant, people who become information junkies.”

I think that perhaps Postman was rather visionary and that indeed, “junkie” is probably the right term for my information appetite. But I’m not alone.

Consider that both the Google and Apple app marketplaces each have more than 700,000 mobile apps available for download. According to a recent USA Today article, the average smartphone has 41 apps installed, and most are rarely used. The competition for our attention so huge.

It’s perhaps even more challenging for our “connected” children. The latest Pew Internet and American Life Project report, “Teens and Technology,” finds that 78% of teens have a cell phone. According to Pew, 95% of teens have access to the internet, and 1-in-4 teens say they mostly access the internet via their mobile devices.

I certainly have days when I face information overload. I can only imagine what the typical teen feels when faced with so many information options.

And, remember, that as transportation communications experts, these young people are among our target audiences for messages about safe driving (driving sober, distracted driving, seat belts) and transit options. We have a very specific interest in reaching these young people now, and well into the future when they become voters and home owners. So thinking about how technology is affecting – or overloading – our audiences is not just a theoretical exercise.

Many people dismiss Postman as something of a Luddite who rejected technology despite all its potential. But I’m not so sure Postman would avoid every technology. He drove a car, after all. And, we assume he read a paper and used a pencil. Those are technologies. But Postman would have certainly remained a skeptic of the next “big thing,” whatever that might be.

In the PBS interview, Postman offered this final comment:

“… when a new–confronted with a new technology, whether it’s a cellular phone or high-definition television or cyberspace or Internet, the question–one question should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? And the second question would be: Whose problem is it actually? And the third question would be: If there is a legitimate problem here that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be created by my using this technology?”

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