Technopoly

Neil Postman, Vintage Books, 1992

Reviewed by Steve Erickson, Computers in Society, Gordon College, 2004

 


In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman sets out to explain a problem he sees in today's culture, as well trace the history of how we ended up here. Postman is an amazing cultural critic and this book serves as a wonderful follow-up to his probably more well known work Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, 1985). The problem which Postman describes is the way in which technology has become the ruling authority of culture. He coins to word "technopoly" as a description of this state. The word "technopoly" describes a society where technology dictates the moral and philosophical mindsets, instead of a social order such as government or the church. In it progress and ef ficiency are held up as god, to which all other spheres of human life must bow. Don't be misunderstand what the author means by the use of the word technology. He is smart enough to recognize that writing, the clock, and even opinion polls are just as much technology as computers and robots. In fact he deals very little with computers (this is probably due to the date of this book). Postman admits that no technology is neutral. The uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself - that is, the function of technology follows from its form (7). He is also clear that while technology does have its benefits, it also has it detriments and each of these must be clearly understood in each culture. He, therefore, sets out to be one of the less familiar voices who lament the misplacement of technology. He says there are many others who are today writing about the amazing benefits of technology, but that his purpose is to be the voice on the other side calling technology back to attention.

 

In the book, Postman breaks history up into three periods. In keeping with other methods for categorizing history (e.g. Stone age, industrial revolution, etc.) he explains history in terms of three technological stages. He begins by describing tool using cultures. In these cultures tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its worldview (25). For the most part these cultures are theocratic. It is theology, not t echnology which shapes society and gives meaning.

 

The ne xt stage which Postman describes is a technocracy. This age is characterized by a separation of moral and intellectual values. It can be traced as far back as to Galileo and the telescope. With his revolutionary discovery, there is created a distance between the moral sphere of life and the intellectual or scientific. Yet the citizens of this era d o to hold science up to be their god. They "knew that science and technology did not provide philosophies by which to live and they clung to the philosophies of their fathers" (47).

 

The term which Postman uses to describe where we in America find ourselves today is Technopoly. In a Technopoly, all other worldviews other than that of technology, progress and efficiency are deemed irrelevant. Fo ur reasons are given for the rise of technopoly in America. 1) The American character of movement and advancement where newness and improvement are closely linked. 2) The genius of American capitalists. 3) The apparent successes of technology in providing convenience, co mfort, speed, hygiene, and abundance. 4) Old sources of belief coming under siege by people like Einstein, Darwin, Marx and Freud (53-55).

 

In a technopoly, people believe whatever science tells them; this is similar to the middle ages where religion had the authority and the people simply believed whatever Rome said. Today we live in a culture where we are continually bombarded with new scientific fact s. The interesting thing is that we are not occupied with these new facts for very long. This is because we do not have a worldview big enough to have the facts make much of a difference. We have such an incoherent view of culture and the world that even if something earth shattering came along it cannot disrupt our already chaotic understandings. It is like recognizing and expecting a pattern in a brand new deck of cards versus one that has been shuffled many times over and a jack of hearts is just as likely to come up as any other card (58-59).

 

Part of the problem with a technopoly is the pollution of information. Whether it is writing, the telegraph or television, they all serve to create more information. The real problem comes when progress and efficiency are held up as the ulti mate good of society. This is because science and technology are the only answers to the problem of progress and when this is the case then not only is technology our problem but it makes it worse by also claiming to be the answer. In our culture, how are we to handle the barrage of information created by technology? The common answer given is with more technology; and so the cycle con tinues and our view of the world is filtered only through the lens of technology and science. Other cultures had information filters; those pieces of society which helped to sort through information, assigning more value to some than to others and giving meaning to the whole thing. These were institutions like schools, churches, government, and families. But when technology trivializes these and makes them seem irrelevant in light of progress and efficiency then it must come up with its own ways of managing information. Postman gives three new ways of managing information in a technopoly. The first is beauracracy, where information is managed by eliminating information which diverts attention away from the problem at hand. Efficiency becomes the authority. The second is the rise of experts. In a technopoly, experts are wholly ignorant of areas unrelated to their own. "The role of the expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, sift through all that is available, eliminate that which has no bearing on a problem, and use what is left to assist in solving the problem. This process works fairly well i n a situation where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes" (88). But the question is: can all of human life be explained simply in terms of technology, science and progress? Postman describes this new religion of science in most eloquent terms. "In Technopoly, all experts are invested with the charisma of priestliness. Some of our priest-experts are called psychiatrists, some psychologists, some sociologists, some statisticians. The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And that is why such concepts as sin and evil disappear in Technopoly. They come from a moral universe that is irrelevant to the theology of expertise. An so the priests of Technopoly call sin 'social deviance,' which is a statistical concept, and they call evil 'psychopathology,' which is a medical concept. Sin and evil disappear because they cannot be measured and objectified, and therefore cannot be dealt with by experts" (90).

 

The third way information is managed in a technopoly is the use of technical machinery. < /span>Those in technopoly do not concern themselves with questions of "what is truth" or "what is the good life". "Machines eliminate complexity, doubt, and ambiguity. They work swiftly, they are standardized, and they provide us with numbers that you can see and calculate with" (93).

 

This whole project of trying to see the world only through mathematics or the idea that all thoughts can be objectified and quantified, Postman calls Scientism. In Scientism, the methods of the natural sciences are applied to the study of human behavior. Then we can generate specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. Science then is seen as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality (144-148). All of this is an explanation o f a quote Postman writes at the beginning of the book, "technology creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living" (xii).

 

Another feature of a technopoly is the trivialization of traditional symbols in a culture. Here any cultural symbol, including those of religion, can be used by whomever for their own purposes; for they can all be justified by the appeal to efficiency. Symbols become trivialized in two ways, first by overusing them and second by indiscriminately using them in any context. Postman writes, "one picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. But a thousand pictures, especially if they are of the same object, may not be worth anything" (166). Some point to advertising as the culprit of this abu ndant and indiscriminate use of symbols, but Postman says that the blame is really on technology. "Such cultural abuse could not have occurred without technologies to make it possible and a world-view to make it desirable" (171).

& nbsp;

One of the effects of a loss of meaningful symbols in a culture, is the loss of a meta-narrative for life. Worldviews are applications of narratives. A narrative is "a story of human history that give s meaning to the past, explains the present and provides guidance for the future. It is a story whose principles help a culture to organize its institutions, to develop ideals, and to find authority for its actions" (172). The story of technopoly is "progress without limits, rights without responsibilities and technology without cost. 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. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly" (179).

 

The final chapter of the book is a humble attempt to offer some guidance for the future. Postman calls us to be "loving resistance fighters". By loving he means that "in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again" (182). Resistance fighters ar e characterized by those "who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations; who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of number, do you not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth; who refuse to allow psychology or any 'social science' to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense; who are, at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding; who do not regard the aged as irrelevant; who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor. . . Who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity's sake; who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement" (184). Beyond this, Postman leaves it to the reader to decide for himself how he will live in a culture that sees technology and science as the authority. He concludes by offering advice to schools on courses that they should offer to help us to think more integratively and holistically about life and learning. History ought to be made an essential part of all disciplines. One cannot adequately study any field of knowledge apart from the history of study in that field. "Knowledge is not a fixed thing, but a state in human development, with a past and a future" (190). Another course he suggests is one in the philosophy of science. We need a course in semantics - the processes by which people make meaning - in order to improve our ability to discern. We need a course in the history of technology and finally we need courses in religion. Each of these he sees as ways in which we can being to realign our understandings of the world and put technology back in its rightful place in human culture. It does have a place, just not at the top of everything where all other parts of human existence become subservient to it.

 

In conclusion, while some might say that this book is a critiqu e of technology in culture; it is really more a book about worldviews. World view is that pesky word which everybody uses in college but nobody really understands. This book helps put a finger on the pervading worldview of our culture today in the process helps the reader to better understand the need for a comprehensive, coherent worldview.

 

For all of the book's laments, it still comes across has having an optimistic tone about the future. P ostman is still filled with hope that the same humanity which has made itself a servant of its tools can re-align that relationship. It is a wonderful book that those who are going into the field of science would do well to read. But it is also so much more than that. This book really should be read by a large variety of people, not because it provides such great solutions but because i t serves as a tool to better understand our culture.