Winners and Losers

If you work in a place like this, you might be a Loser.

More Neil Postman:

“Another way of saying this is that a new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.

In the case of computer technology, there can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like military establishments or airline companies or banks or tax collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high-level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steel workers, vegetable store owners, teachers, automobile mechanics, musicians, bakers, brick layers, dentists and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? These people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are being buried by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children. In a word, almost nothing happens to the losers that they need, which is why they are losers.

It is to be expected that the winners — for example, most of the speakers at this conference — will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners, and so they sometimes tell the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists. They also tell them that they can vote at home, shop at home, get all the information they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary. They tell them that their lives will be conducted more efficiently, discreetly neglecting to say from whose point of view or what might be the costs of such efficiency.

Should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the wondrous feats of computers, many of which have only marginal relevance to the quality of the losers’ lives but which are nonetheless impressive. Eventually, the losers succumb, in part because they believe that the specialized knowledge of the masters of a computer technology is a form of wisdom. The masters, of course, come to believe this as well. The result is that certain questions do not arise, such as, to whom will the computer give greater power and freedom, and whose power and freedom will be reduced?”

One thought on “Winners and Losers

  1. It comes down to what a person does with the additional time that increased efficiency has granted him. Speaking for myself, in 1992 it was common for our team to spend entire weekends at the office during busy times, putting together presentations and reports. This was the day of DOS machines and clunky software. By 1994, we were doing much more business but no longer coming in on weekends. The difference was so noticable, I still remember my boss commenting on it with amazement.

    As software suites such as MS Office have become increasingly powerful and integrated, my work time has continued to drop accordingly. When people gripe about whether Bill Gates has “given back” enough, I reply: He gave me back my weekends! And my evenings. And, in recent years, computer technology has given me the freedom to hang out a shingle and go into business for myself from wherever I want to live — including a five acre farm in rural Illinois. The time saved by efficiency, and by not commuting, I spend with my family and my community and my farm animals.

    Even for blue collar folks, such as a friend’s wife who works in a warehouse, improvements in computer tracking (and other) systems have made life dramatically less stressful. That makes a big difference in her frame of mind when she comes home from her shift.

    I’m not saying technology is a panacea, or that it makes everyone a winner, but I’ve found it to be much more liberating for a much wider variety of people, in often-unexpected ways, than it is usually given credit for by folks such as Postman.


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