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Columnist

Has the Internet been good or bad for humanity?

I stumbled upon a new way to think about the question (on the Internet, naturally), in the form of a quietly radical 1998 talk given by the author and cultural critic Neil Postman. The title, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change ,” is a snoozer, but the contents are eye-opening.

1998 saw the launch of the iMac and the dawn of our (mostly baseless) Y2K fears. Home WiFi wouldn’t arrive until the following year. Today, we are glued to our mobile devices, and the president of the United States sends his most important messages out on Twitter. In other words: A lot has changed. Yet two decades after he articulated them, Postman’s ideas seem more prescient than ever.

So let’s scroll through:

The first idea: “All technological change is a trade-off.” We pay a price for technology, and the greater the technology, the higher the price. It is unarguable that the Internet and its associated innovations continue to be responsible for great economic and social gains. But are they worth what they destroy? Does access to information balance the spread of divisive lies? Does “connecting the world” make up for atomized communities?

Second: “The advantages and disadvantages of a new technology are never distributed evenly.” There are always winners and losers — and the winners will try to convince the losers that they are really winners.

Consider our growing gig economy and the companies that have enshrined and benefited from it. “Work that puts you first,” croons Uber’s website. “Drive when you want, earn what you need.” What that shakes out to, of course, is income instability, an absence of benefits and a pressure to work yourself to the bone, an ethos that is trickling into many other fields.

Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s net worth is about $4.4 billion. Uber drivers net an average of $10 an hour. But aren’t you glad we’re all more flexible? Haven’t we all won?

Third: Embedded in every technology is a philosophy, given expression in how that technology makes people use their minds and how it codifies the world. This philosophy will have practical consequences.

Computers value information over knowledge or wisdom, Postman suggested, and a world dependent on them may cause the latter to disappear. Today, add the rise of algorithms to the mix, encoded as they are with all the biases of their creators. Our decisions are being made for us — and not necessarily very well.

Fourth: “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.” These new creations don’t stand alone; they change everything.

This one is a little abstract, but think of social media. We already know about echo chambers and fake news, and how social media can influence our elections, our moods, our relationships. But there are deeper changes afoot as well, ones that can’t be isolated from the medium.

An alarming new study, for instance, suggests that Facebook usage has fueled anti-refugee attacks in Germany. In towns where per-person Facebook use rose significantly above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent. These places weren’t just towns plus Facebook. Rather, Facebook changed the tenor of the entire community — the way its citizens act toward each other and how they determine right and wrong. Is this really what we want?

And the fifth idea: Technology tends to become perceived as part of the natural order of things and thus is allowed to control more of our lives than is good for us. Said Postman: “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.”

How quickly it became unimaginable to think of being without one’s smartphone. How strange to imagine a world in which you can’t just Google what you don’t know. Radical technological changes quickly seem set in stone. But they don’t have to be.

In the 20 years since Postman — who died in 2003 — gave his remarks, technology has rendered the world altogether different. Yet some crucial things remain the same: The things we create are still ours , for one. We still have the power to change them.

While some transformations have already been set in motion, that motion can be directed — if we decide we want it enough. At Google, artificial-intelligence developers have threatened to resign rather than create programs for war. The designers of the most addictive mobile devices are waging campaigns to temper them. And no one is forcing us to use Uber, or Twitter, or Facebook.  

Technology’s “capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does to us and for us,” Postman said. So has the Internet been good or bad for humanity? If we’re willing to pay attention, we can be the ones to decide.