Neil Postman’s Technopoly … Twenty Years Later

I discovered Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death, etc.) somewhat belatedly, around the year 2000 or so, and it wasn’t until sometime later still that I began to read his work. Recently, I discovered some old notes I had made on Postman’s book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993) and realized that this work is now twenty years old. It seemed like a good moment to reconsider Postman’s ideas and assess the extent to which his cultural critiques stood the test of time.

As I read my notes (below), I’m left amazed at Postman’s prescience and insight. I agree with almost all of his diagnosis of the problems of technology in modern society, and much of his (admittedly limited) solution.

But I’m also caught, because I too am surrounded by technology and embrace its use in education, church, and the management of my everyday life.

So I’m worried. I’m afraid that my society (with me in it) is already so inundated by technology and so adapted to the philosophy of life that undergirds its use in our Western world that we have lost our ability to critique or (worse yet) control its place in our lives. Perhaps its no surprise that a new television program, Revolution, has emerged alongside many other post-apocalyptic films and books to explore life without the electricity that drives our technological world. And I’m concerned at how our immersion in the world of technopoly is changing our experience of God, our participation in the Christian faith, and the work of educating our children and youth.

These are the questions and concerns that come to mind as I explore (again) Postman’s ideas in Technopoly, viewed through the lens of my imperfect and subjective note-taking from some years ago:

Notes on Postman’s Technopoly:

Postman produces a brilliant analysis of the fundamental changes taking place in western culture. In Technopoly, his focus is on the subtle and not-so-subtle impact of technology on our culture, tracing its development to the contemporary “technopoly”, or monopoly of power that technology has in our society.

Chapter 1 – The Judgment of Thamus
Postman uses a story about concern over the adoption of writing in the ancient world to point out that technology is both a blessing and a burden (5). Technology brings fundamental change, which leaves us with not just the old reality plus a new technology, but a new reality. It alters the deeply embedded habits of thought, and creates new conceptions of what is real (12). For example, the clock was developed to mark the canonical hours in monasteries, but soon came to regulate urban life and production (14-15). This is a form of ecological change (18), whereby new technologies alter the structure of our interests (what we think about), the character of our symbols (the ideas, images, and language we think with), and the nature of our community (the place where our thoughts develop) (20).

Chapter 2 – From Tools to Technocracy
Here Postman asserts that technology creates the ways in which people perceive reality. It shapes life. He describes “tool using cultures,” in which tools are used to solve practical problems or to serve the world of the arts, politics, or religious life … but they don’t attack the dignity or integrity of the existing culture (23). Theological principles or some metaphysical system or other governs the culture (this is, I suppose, how Christians would like to live in our world today – KJ).

In contrast, in a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought world of the culture. They attack the culture and bid to become the culture (28). The clock, the printing press, and the telescope are the three technologies Postman uses to illustrate the effect of new technologies on world view, creating a separation between moral and intellectual values (31). For instance, he traces the developments in astronomy from Copernicus to Kepler to Galileo to Newton, and explains how Bacon was the first to really understand the effect of science and invention on society and culture. Bacon is the one who argued that the goal of science is human progress (not, say, the glory of God or the quest for understanding). He was, says Postman, the first man of technocracy (38). As a result, the “conception of God’s design certainly lost much of its power and meaning” (38).

Chapter 3 – From Technocracy to Technopoly
Postman begins this chapter asking when technocracy took root. He suggests various possible dates: 1765, and the invention of the steam engine by James Watt; 1776, and the publication of Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; or 1780, and the development of over twenty factories by Richard Arkwright (40-41). By 1806, the power loom was in use, meaning that there was no longer any need for skilled workers in the textile industry. By 1850, the machine-tool industry had emerged, meaning dramatic new advancements in industrialization … invention upon invention. The idea of invention itself was very important. The fact that invention was possible meant that problems could be solved, and the “how” of invention overshadowed the “why” of invention. The ability to do it was all that mattered. Objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardization, measurement, and progress became the natural, expected, and unquestioned goals of invention and development. A related result of this shift was a change in the perception of human beings, from children of God to consumers of manufactures (42). Some objected to this on moral or philosophical grounds; others hoped to create a communal utopia in the midst of industrialization; still others responded by machine breaking and other protests–we know them as Luddites (42-43). Despite these objections, technocracy grew apace, and transformed the material world–it diminished class, increased individualism, sped up time, collapsed distance, and fed the notion of progress as the new reality (45). In contrast, it subordinated religion, family, and tradition (indeed, religion does provide the potential for a critique of technocracy, an asking of the question “why?” (46-48).

Technopoly goes one step further than technocracy, eradicating any conflicting or contesting views, rendering them irrelevant by redefining words (and concepts) like religion, art, family, or politics (48).

When, then, does technopoly begin? With Henry Ford? With the Scopes-Monkey trial? With Frederick W. Taylor and Scientific Management, a concept that introduced efficiency and technical calculation to the industrial enterprise, viewed subjectivity as an obstacle, asserted that only what is measurable is important, and determined that society is best governed by experts? The system or the technique would do the thinking for people, and consequently the needs of people became less important than the needs of the machines, and machines came to be worth more than people (52).

All this came with special force in America, because of: 1) the American character, which elevates progress and change and distrusts all constraints; 2) leading American entrepreneurs of the 19th century, who embraced technology; 3) the American value of convenience and comfort; and 4) the rise of scholarship, which undermined confidence in traditional belief systems, replacing it with faith in technology (53-55).

“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, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling.” (54)

Chapter 4 – The Improbable World
Here Postman compares the Middle Ages (belief in the authority of religion, no matter what) with our contemporary world (belief in the authority of science, no matter what) (58). Along with science, technology, and a narrative of progress (60), Postman argues, comes a new problem: “information glut” leading to “information chaos.” None of our problems are due to insufficient information, but from a lack of the ability to analyze and prioritize it. We can’t answer the question of the purpose our information is supposed to serve. So managing information has become the key issue (J. Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society). Postman goes on to explain the cultural impact of printing (E. Eisenstein), and lines up printing, telegraphy, photography, broadcasting and computers as the technological culture-changers giving us access to instant, indiscriminate information. The result is that we accommodate ourselves to new technology in the brave new world where technological progress has become the chief aim of life (70).

Chapter 5 – The Broken Defenses
Technopoly is a state of culture and therefore also a state of mind. The culture seeks authorization in technology, takes orders from technology. Technology becomes the highest achievement of humanity, and the purported solution for every human dilemma. Technology is said to offer increased “freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things–but quite the opposite–seems to change few opinions, for such unwavering beliefs are an inevitable product of the structure of Technopoly” (71).

Postman argues the need for defenses in order to find meaning from information. In fact, he says we must limit information. University curricula, courts, schools, families, political parties, religions, and the state all control and give meaning to information, in party by prioritizing some information and excluding other information as irrelevant (72-77). Thus one of the important conclusions to be drawn from the Scopes-Monkey Trial is that the defeat of creationist forces weakened the Bible not only as the explainer of science, but also as the arbiter of moral behaviour (78).

Technopoly is all about the supremacy of science without any real moral guidance. Only practical considerations matter (79). Can it be done? In place of the traditional controls on information, technopoly employs bureaucracy (with its frustrating drive towards efficiency) (85). Thus it is that government grows and grows, and that bureaucrats like Eichmann acknowledge no responsibility for the human dimensions of their decisions (87). Along with bureaucracy come other tools of technopoly, such as expertise, specialization (coming from the growth of bureaucracy, the decline of tradition, and the glut of information), and technical machinery (tests, statistics, etc.). Experts are like priests, but sin and evil become irrelevant, because they can’t be measured or made into objectives (90). But, as Postman declares, technopoly cannot provide order and meaning–when it tries to, “pain and stupidity … are the consequences” (91).

Chapter 6 – Medical Technology
Postman enters into the world of medical science and technology, arguing that modern medicine is about the disease and not the patient. The machine, not the patient, knows best (100). He asks whether we’re better off this way, and discusses a variety of unnecessary treatments and side effects.

Chapter 7 – The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology
Here Postman asks the question: should computers do everything they can do? (110) He notes the power and ubiquity of computers (and this in 1992! – KJ) and how the computer “subordinates the claims of our nature, our biology, our emotions, our spirituality.” (111). In contrast to the power of computers, Postman underscores the importance of making and understanding meaning, which is a uniquely human endeavour. Still, given the growing importance of computers, it is no surprise that our language has shifted: humans are called machines, and computers are becoming more human, catching viruses.

The computer, he notes, is the technology of command and control. In other words, the computer itself (or a program…) becomes the authority. The key issue here is our loss of confidence in human judgment and subjectivity … “to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions.” Instead, we’ve replaced that “with faith in the powers of technical calculation” (118).

Are technical solutions really what we need? And what skills do we lose when we rely so greatly on computer technology?

Chapter 8 – Invisible Technologies
Describing language as technology and a powerful ideological instrument, Postman calls it a “set of assumptions of which we are barely conscious but which nonetheless directs our efforts to give shape and coherence to our world” (123). Language is subtle. We don’t even notice the way it shapes and frames our world. The questions we ask shape the answers we get. Here Postman tells a story of two priests and their questions about prayer and smoking: one asks if it is permitted to smoke while praying, the other whether it is permitted to pray while smoking (126). Another example is the emergence of the concept of zero, and the way it changed mathematical thinking (127). Still another is the story of Francis Galton and the emergence of statistics (129). Postman cites Stephen Jay Gould (The Mismeasure of Man) concerning three issues with statistics: 1) reification, or turning an idea (word) into a thing; 2) ranking; and 3) the bias and subjectivity inherent in our questions (130-131). It’s like the old joke about the statistician who died wading in a river with an average depth of four feet (132).

Postman discusses the problems with polling, like asking for yes and no answers to unexamined questions (no ability to say, “Yes, but…” or “No, but…”) (134). The truth is that opinions are not static things, but processes of thinking. So polling charts what people believe, but not what they know. Moreover, polling lets the leaders off of the hook for decisions (135).

As for statistics, Postman feels it produces information overload. And the development of management involves procedures and rules to standardize behaviour (141). The problem is not that this becomes a technique, but that the technique becomes autonomous, divorced from deeper (moral) considerations.

Chapter 9 – Scientism
Here Postman takes aim at social scientists and their alleged scientism. He defines scientism as the conviction 1) that the natural sciences provide a method for studying and understanding humanity; 2) that social science generates principles to organize society on a rational, humane basis; and 3) that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system giving meaning to life (147). He compares processes (in nature) like blinking, which follow what are essentially laws with practices (human) like winking, which are the product of human decisions (148). Counting and observing are not the same as science. Empiricism is about looking at things before drawing conclusions (149) and offering evidence others can see as well as you. Science is all that plus a spirit of objectivity.

Social science does not measure up to this standard. Chiefly, it is not falsifiable (how to prove God doesn’t exist?). Social science is not unlike the humanities–it is a form of storytelling. (154)

But technopoly values objectivity and thinks of humans as objects; therefore, it strives to be considered scientific (158). Morality is excluded. Only facts matter. Why such faith in social science? For Postman, it is because our desacralized world is looking for meaning and truth (160-161) and will latch on to anything that seems to provide it.

Chapter 10 – The Great Symbol Drain
This chapter is all about the trivialization (165) of significant cultural symbols by commercial enterprise. It’s not really about greed, Postman argues, but because the adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else. Symbols can be weakened or exhausted through frequency of use or use in indiscriminate settings, (like using heaven to sell Philadelphia cream cheese or the Hallelujah chorus to celebrate trivial wins or choices – KJ). Here Postman references Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (167).

This trivialization occurred with the growth of the magazine industry and related advertising industry. Advertising is less about the product and more about the consumer. Market research, not product research, is the key. The questions become: what is wrong with the consumer? How can this product be seen to fix that problem? In this Postman describes Christmas as “cultural rape” (170). The issue is not really the advertising itself but the worldview of technopoly (which is all about progress and consumption, and where tradition is the obstacle).

So too with education technology, which answers the “how?” of education (with efficiency and interest) but not the “why?” of education (171-172).

Thus the symbol drain is both symptom and cause of cultural decline, and the loss of a meaningful narrative (173).

So here is the story of technopoly: “progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost” (179).

Chapter 11 – The Loving Resistance Fighter
This is Postman’s attempt at something of an answer to the problem of technopoly. His response (he won’t say “solution”) is to become a “loving resistance fighter” who continues cultivating meaning in important symbols and ideals in American life.

He looks back at the experiments that are America: maintaining identity and purpose in an environment of political and religious freedom; maintaining cohesion and community in an environment of immigration and gloablization; and now, maintaining history, originality, and humanity in an environment saturated by technology. Postman believes the first experiments worked, but worries the third won’t.

Those who resist technopoly are people:
“who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;
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 numbers, do 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, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect the person to be in the same room;
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. (183-184)”

From there, Postman goes on to suggest an educational program in which everything is taught historically (in terms of the development of new ideas and concepts) and where semantics plays a large role. Much of his program is about teaching students to question the assumptions behind the way language and technology is used all around them. His goal is to have students study the development of humanity, broadly understood.

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One thought on “Neil Postman’s Technopoly … Twenty Years Later

  1. Kyle–

    Succinctly & scrupulously summarized! But ya know, the guy who was on to all this stuff long before Postman was Lewis Mumford, who was himself a Johnny-come-lately compared to Henry Thoreau.

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