Some people are above any specific time, Neil Postman was one of these. Next year the world leaders will meet for Rio+20. This event will take place 40 years after the Stockholm conference (the first global environmental conference) and obviously 20 years since the Earth Summit in Rio where much of the thinking/architecture for the current environmental work was shaped. It is fascinating to see how few new ideas (almost nothing) or new groups that have emerged to set a new agenda in the last 20 years. It is as if nothing has happened, as if what we need is more what we already have.
I have tried to introduce the idea of Rio2.0 to highlight a few things that either where not possible 20 years ago or was not on the agenda, e.g. technology development (with a particular focus on Nanotechnology and ICT), a solution approach that focus on transformative solutions and where systems/statistics are built around what we want, not the problems, and the role of “mental pollution” (when too much of certain information becomes a problem in the same way as environmental pollution is too high concentration of a substance). The connected society brings these areas together and contribute to a change in society that is so fundamental that no one seems to want to address it.
It is easy to forget that 20 years ago the word wide web was born and the first page saw the light [info.cern.ch]. Today we live in a world where a global connectivity is taken for granted in a way that is historically unique and we are soon going to see the a totally new connectivity when we get new interfaces, almost everything manmade is connected and sensors will provide us with real-time data regarding the state of the planet. But it has happened without much discussion about the fundamental implications and choices we are making.
Just realizing that I have not said anything about Postman’s book, but instead of staring over I think it is actually telling. The book makes you think and get inspired.
I hope that Technopoly will be read by those who will shape tomorrows agenda. I have to admit that I don’t have much hope for those that are seen as leading the agenda today, as the level of simplicity in arguments and approach must be at a historic low, but a new generation of thought leaders should read this book carefully.
Postman formulated many of the challenges today in very simple terms, e.g.
“Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological” A new technology changes everything. It creates a new situation. This is true for major changes such as the connectivity.
“New technologies alter the structure of our interest”
Today his most important contribution might be to remind us that information in itself does not solve very much, and much of what we do today is inventing technology to deal with increased amount of information while the major challenges are ignored.
“The fact is, there are very few political, social, and especially personal problems that arise because of insufficient information. Nonetheless, as incomprehensible problems mount, as the concept of progress fades, as meaning itself becomes suspect, the Technopolist stands firm in believing that what the world needs is yet more information.”
“Into this void comes the Technopoly story, with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without costs. The technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advance. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. It purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.”
It is not about information, it is not about new ways of presenting things, it is a paradigm shift in how we approach the world and how we organize ourselves when we deal with important challenges.
The world without Postman is a less reflective place, a place where a person like Steve Jobs can be compared with Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci without people asking how this is possible. I think Steve Jobs was a skillful person, but if we use the worlds most important challenges (from poverty, climate change and pandemics to urbanisation, demographic change and depleting natural resources) his impact was limited and if anything most of the things he contributed to was probably a distraction from the important issues. Again I want to stress that he was very good at what he did, but celebrating him as one of the great persons of our time says more about our times than about Steve.