This summer, one of the books I read was Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1992), subtitlted “The Surrender of Culture to Technology.”Postman was an outspoken critic against the wrong uses of technology, information, and media.For more of a background on Postman, visit the online recollections from people he influenced.
One of my interpretations of Postman’s writings is that he views technology not as bad in itself, but rather as bad when not used correctly.Postman claims that technological change is neither additive or subtractive – it is ecological in that one significant change generates total change.For example, total change occurred with the invention of writing and the printing press. Technopoly is all about this total change in the modern day.
Technologies are not just objects that we use.Within each technology is embedded an ideological bias.The saying “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is true.Technologies change views on knowledge, truth, and the nature of symbols we use.
Postman lists three types of cultures related to technology.The first is a tool-using culture.These cultures are in control of their tools and are theocratic.The second type is what Postman dubs a technocracy –when invention and ingenuity start to take off.There are two opposing worldviews in a technocracy – traditional and technological.A good example of this is in Galileo’s time, when the leading scientists of the day were ruled by their belief in God and/or the church.The third type of culture is a Technopoly (which Postman capitalizes throughout).Postman claimed that America was the only true Technopoly of our world, but others like Japan, Germany, and Britain are close on our heels.In America, the “lust for what is new has no bounds.”
Many people (myself included) struggled through Postman’s lack of a solid, concrete definition of Technopoly.However, as I kept reading, I realized that Postman may have purposely done so as an extension of his own argument. He wanted readers to form their own definitions in their own social contexts. In our Technopoly, we are so used to having concrete definitions at our fingertips (thanks, Wikipedia). I believe Postman wanted us to form our own. Many are frustrated at this, because they believe a cogent argument must lay down definitions. This, however, in my eyes, is a manifestation of the Technopoly mindset.
Postman describes a Technopoly as flourishing when defenses against information break down.Technopoly is a society wherein the goal of human labor is efficiency, judgment cannot be trusted because technical calculation is superior to human judgment, affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts, and subjectivity is viewed as an obstacle to clear thinking.This is why, I think, Postman did not give a clear, succinct definition of Technopoly – because the “need” for a definition is a thought born out of a Technopolist culture.
Gone are the ideas about human progress because they’ve been replaced with technological progress. We want something better but don’t ask why.We only worry about how.We add to our information glut while undergoing cultural death.Postman called this the “peek-a-boo world,” a world in which our attentions are only had as long as they are being entertained.We have become numb to technology, and are living in a Huxley-an Brave New World.
I won’t go into Postman’s lengthy historical discussion of how America became a Technopoly, but I will share the four reasons why it was allowed to flourish in America.
1) The American character promoted it.The thought that newness = improvement was and is such a large part of the American mindset.Progress for the sake of progress, invention for the sake of invention, without any consideration for consequences.
2) The genius and audacity of American capitalists.Men like Rockefeller, Edison, Ford, and Bell were good at exploiting the economic possibilities of new technology, and pioneered the thinking that the future need have no connection to the past.
3) There was no reason to look for other sources of fulfillment, creativity, or purpose because of the success of technology in providing convenience, comfort, speed, hygiene, and abundance.“To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative.To prayer – the alternative is penicillin; to family roots – mobility; to reading – television; to restraint – immediate gratification; to sin – psychotherapy; to political ideology – popular appeal through polling.” [Political polling is something Postman was vehemently against, which I agree with.Read the book if you want to learn why.]
4) Old sources of belief came under siege. Amid the conceptual debris and information glut, belief systems came under attacks, and there seemed to be only one sure thing left to believe in – technology.
A large portion of Technopoly was devoted to a discussion on the modern reverence for statistics and numbers.Technopoly has turned just about any abstraction into a measurable “thing” that can be located and measured.Something abstract like intelligence can now be measured by IQ tests.We can also now rank people based on how they score on an IQ test.Technopoly searches for and finds authority in the idea of statistical objectivity.Because we live in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure of what sort of nonsense people will believe – Postman tells a story about the statistician who drowned wading across a river that had an average depth of four feet.Statistics creates useless information – not just information overload, but information trivia.Not all such trivia is necessarily bad, but the information that is worth knowing is buried in such a heap of useless information.
In a Technopoly, it is not valid to merely say that homelessness is degrading and wrong.One must show through statistics and data that a homeless person is unhappy or bad for the economy.Writers like Dickens, Twain, or even the writers of the Bible are not legitimate dispensers of knowledge anymore.They might be worth reading, or good entertainment, but for truth in a Technopoly, people turn to science.
So what do we do? Many people respond to critics by saying, “ok, wise guy, now what?”People want solutions, and they want them now.The problem is, sometimes there are not always solutions to problems, and “knowing is half the battle.”Many critics are only armed with the problems, and not solutions.Postman, however, gives a two-part response to the demand for a solution.They might not be the best solutions, but to something as ingrained into American life as Technopoly, I don’t know if there really is a solution.
The first solution is to be a “loving freedom fighter.”Being aware of cultural change and new ideologies is paramount, but so is having a sense of humor about such things.Holding important symbols close to your heart (like great works of literature, for example) are also imperative.
The second solution Postman gives is through education reform, which is not surprising since Postman was an English teacher before a cultural critic.Teachers prefer to teach to enthusiastic, engaged students (who want to be entertained by education and thus have short attention spans).But youth must be taught that not all worthwhile things are instantly accessible and that there are levels of sensibility unknown to students.Also, the history of every subject is necessary to give students a proper view of the world, and to leave out the history of subjects is to reduce education to a consumer product.
There are many other points I would love to comment on, but this is already long enough. Just read the book. In closing, I want to echo Postman’s words that I don’t mean to be a “one-eyed prophet” and see only one side of things. Look at me now – I’m on a blog, I am on Facebook, I use e-mail and text messages.But we must always look at technologies as not an either/or entity, but as a this-and-that.Technologies giveth and technologies taketh away. Stephen Vincent Benet in John Brown’s Body puts it eloquently when he says:
If you at last must have a word to say,
Say neither, in their way,
“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”
Nor “It is blest,” but only “It is here.”
For more Postman reading, ask me to e-mail you his advice on how to live the rest of your life.