the faustian bargain of technology


I've been indulging my appetite for communications theory recently as I work on this rather ambitious project for work. In particular, I've been considering the ways we can use online tools to encourage civic participation. But I'm conflicted. I've been (re)reading Neil Postman and trying to come to terms with the wise concepts about culture and technological change that he presented time and time again throughout his career.

Postman said that all technological change is a trade-off, what he called a Faustian bargain. Postman felt that culture always paid the price for technology. Technology giveth and technology taketh away, meaning that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. He further expressed this idea to say that the question, "What will a new technology do?" is no more important than the question, "What will a new technology undo?" He posited the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.

So as I work on this project - a project with the lofty goal of using of online tools as part of a solution to break down barriers between governmental departments and help communicate to the community what is happening at a programs level - I have to wonder, what will this new technology undo? How can we achieve a balance between participation online and participation in the physical realm? How can we use these tools to help change attitudes? To what level do we serve to inform? To what degree do we seek to influence?