Technopoly | Notes & Review

Neil Postman. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, 1992. (222 pages)



…the argument is not between humanists and scientists but between technology and everybody else. (xii)

First, technology is a friend. … Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. (xii)

…the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy. (xii)

1. The Judgment of Thamus

Plato’s Phaedrus … The story, as Socrates tells it to his friend Phaedrus, unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained the god Theuth, who was the inventor of many things, including number, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely known and available to Egyptians. Socrates continues:

Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth’s claims to be well or ill founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth’s inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

…it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and that. | Nothing could be more obvious, of course, especially to those who have given more than two minutes of thought to the matter. Nonetheless, we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo. We might call such people Technophiles. (4-5)

A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. (5)

…writing is not a neutral technology whose good or harm depends on the uses made of it. [Thamus] knows that the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself — that is, that its functions follow from its form. This is why Thamus is concerned not with what people will write; he is concerned that people will write. (7)

…once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is — that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open. (7)

…radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and…this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it. (8)

New things require new words. But new things also modify old words, words that have deep-rooted meanings. The telegraph and the penny press changed what we once meant by “information.” Television changes what we once meant by the terms “political debate,” “news,” and “public opinion.” The computer changes “information” once again. Writing changed what we once meant by “truth” and “law”; printing changed them again, and now television and the computer change them once more. (8)

…technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines “freedom,” “truth,” “intelligence,” “fact,” “wisdom,” “memory,” “history” — all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask. (8-9)

It is expected that the winners will encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. (11)

…in cultures that have a democratic ethos, relatively weak traditions, and a high receptivity to new technologies, everyone is inclined to be enthusiastic about technological change, believing that its benefits will eventually spread evenly among the entire population. (11)

…new technologies change what we mean by “knowing” and “truth”; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like — a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real. (12)

If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself. .. Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge. (13)

embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. (31)

“The medium is the message.” “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature,” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. …language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. (14)

This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number. (14)

the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. (14)

In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter. (15)

Unforeseen consequences stand in the way of all those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us. (15)

Luther understood, as Gutenberg did not, that the mass-produced book, by placing the Word of God on every kitchen table, makes each Christian his own theologian — one might even say his own priest, or, better, from Luther’s point of view, his own pope. In the struggle between unity and diversity of religious belief, the press favored the latter, and we can assume that this possibility never occurred to Gutenberg. (15)

new technologies compete with old ones — for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view. (16)

Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There, they encounter the world of the printed word. A sort of psychic battle takes place, and there are many casualties — children who can’t learn to read or won’t, children who cannot organize their thought into logical structure even in a simple paragraph, children who cannot attend to lectures or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time. They are failures, but not because they are stupid. They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side — at least for the moment. (16-17)

In introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred-year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word. Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility,… Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue? (17)

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. (18)

A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry. And that is why the competition among media is so fierce. Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization — not to mention their reason for being — reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. (18)

…the chief use of the overt content of poetry is,

to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog – T.S. Eliot

What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God? (19)

New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. As Thamus spoke to Innis across the centuries, it is essential that we listen to their conversation, join in it, revitalize it. For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is — in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly. [VIA: Kevin Kelly calls it the “Technium.”]

2. From Tools to Technocracy

Is Achilles possible when powder and shot have been invented? And is the Illiad possible at all when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions for epic poetry disappear? – Karl Marx

tools were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock. (23)

…in a tool-using culture technology is not seen as autonomous, and is subject to the jurisdiction of some binding social or religious system. (24)

Tool-using cultures, in other words, may be both ingenious and productive in solving problems of the physical environment. (24)

…the Bible…is the longest and most detailed account of an ancient tool-using culture we have. (25)

The name “tool-using culture” derives from the relationship in a given culture between tools and the belief system or ideology. The tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view. (25)

…all tool-using cultures — from the technologically most primitive to the most sophisticated — are theocratic or, if not that, unified by some metaphysical theory. Such a theology or metaphysics provides order and meaning to existence, making it almost impossible for technics to subordinate people to its own needs. (26)

Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives. | The modern technocracies of the West have their roots in the medieval European world, from which there emerged three great inventions: the mechanical clock, which provided a new conception of time; the printing press with movable type, which attacked the epistemology of the oral tradition; and the telescope, which attacked the fundamental propositions of Judeo-Christian theology. (28-29)

Now as regards the opinions of the saints about these matters of nature, I answer in one word, that in theology the weight of authority, but in philosophy the weight of Reason alone is valid. …but to me more sacred than all these is Truth, when I, with all respect for the doctors of the Church, demonstrate from philosophy that the earth is round, circumhabited by antipodes, of a most insignificant smallness, and a swift wanderer among the stars. – Johanes Kepler

Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo put in place the dynamite that would blow up the theology and metaphysics of the medieval world. Newton lit the fuse. … Theology, once the Queen of the Sciences, was now reduced to the status of Court Jester. (34)

…the science they created was almost wholly concerned with questions of truth, not power. (35)

…the improvement of men’s minds and the improvement of his lot are one and the same thing. – Francis Bacon

Bacon is the first man of technocracy, but it was some time before he was joined by the multitude. He died in 1626, and it took another 150 years for European culture to pass to the mentality of the modern world — that is, to technocracy. In doing so, people came to believe that knowledge is power, that humanity is capable of progressing, that poverty is a great evil, and that the life of the average person is as meaningful as any other. It is untrue to say that along the way God died. But any conception of God’s design certainly lost much of its power and meaning, and with that loss went the satisfactions of a culture in which moral and intellectual values were integrated. (38)

3. From Technocracy to Technopoly

…we might locate the emergence of the first true technocracy in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century — let us say with James Watt‘s invention of the steam engine in 1765. From that time forward, a decade did not pass without the invention of some significant machinery which, taken together, put an end to medieval “manufacture” (which once meant “to make by hand”). (40)

late 1700s – factory system by Richard Arkwright
1806 – concept of the power loom introduced by Edmud Cartwright
1850 – machine-tool industry — machines to make machines
1860s – collective fervor for invention took hold of the masses

Everyone invented, whoever owned an enterprise sought ways and means to make his goods more speedily, more perfectly, and often of improved beauty. Anonymously and inconspicuously the old tools were transformed into modern instruments. – Siegfried Giedion

1830s – the photograph and telegraph
1840s – rotary-power printing
1860s – typewriter
1866 – transatlantic cable
1876 – telephone
1895 – motion pictures and wireless telegraphy

Alfred North Whitehead summed it up best when he remarked that the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and the question of why we invent things receded in importance. The idea that if something could be done it should be done was born in the nineteenth century. And along with it, there developed a profound belief in all the principles through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardization, measurement, and progress. It also came to be believed that the engine of technological progress worked most efficiently when people are conceived of not as children of God or even as citizens but as consumers — that is to say, as markets. (42)

…the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view. (43)

Something else reached a mass audience as well: political and religious freedom. It would be an inadmissible simplification to claim that the Age of Enlightenment originated solely because of the emerging importance of technology in the eighteenth century, but it is quite clear that the great stress placed on individuality in the economic sphere had an irresistible resonance in the political sphere. (44-45)

Technocracy gave us the idea of progress, and of necessity loosened our bonds with tradition — whether political or spiritual. Technocracy filled the air with the promise o new freedoms and new forms of social organization. Technocracy also speeded up the world. We could get places faster, do things faster, accomplish more in a shorter time. Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph. And this meant that there was no time to look back or to contemplate what was being lost. (45)

Technocracy did not entirely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds. Technocracy subordinated these worlds — yes, even humiliated them — but it did not render them totally ineffectual. (45)

The technocracy that emerged, fully armed, in nineteenth century America disdained such beliefs, because holy men and sin, grandmothers and families, regional loyalties and two-thousand-year-old traditions, are antagonistic to the technocratic way of life. (46)

If we ask, then, why technocracy did not destroy the worldview of a tool-using culture, we may answer that the fury of industrialism was too new and as yet too limited in scope to alter the needs of inner life or to drive away the language, memories, and social structures of the tool-using past. (47)

The citizens of a technocracy knew that science and technology did not provide philosophies by which to live, and they clung to the philosophies of their fathers. (47)

And so two opposing world-views — the technological and the traditional — coexisted in uneasy tension. (48)

With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself. … It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy. (48)

Frederick W. Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, contains the first explicit and formal outline of the assumptions of the thought-world of Technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts. (51)

…the judgment of individual workers was replaced by laws, rules, and principles o the “science” of the job. This did mean, of course, that workers would have to abandon any traditional rules of thumb they were accustomed to using; in fact, workers were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. The system would do their thinking for them. That is crucial, because it led to the idea that technique of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of Technopoly. (51-52)

Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does. In the work of Frederick Taylor we have, I believe, the first clear statement of the idea that society is best served when human beings are placed at the disposal o their techniques and technology, that human beings are, in a sense, worth less than their machinery. (52)

What did Technopoly — the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology — find fertile ground on American soil? There are four interrelated reasons for the rise of Technopoly in America

1. the American character.

The American lives in a land of wonders…everything around him is in constant movement, and every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in his mind the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement. Nowhere does he see any limit placed by nature to human endeavor; in his eyes something that does not exist is just something that has not been tried. – Tocqueville

2. the genius and audacity of American capitalists.

3. the success of twentieth-century technology in providing Americans with convenience, comfort, speed, hygiene, and abundance.

4. old sources of belief came under siege.

The trust of a century of scholarship had the effect of making us lose confidence in our belief systems and therefore in ourselves. Amid the conceptual debris, there remained one sure thing to believe in — technology. Whatever else may be denied or compromised, it is clear that airplanes do fly, antibiotics do cure, radios do speak, and, as we know now, computers do calculate and never make mistakes — only faulty humans do. (55)

4. The Improbable World

In the Middle Ages, people believed int he authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what. (58)

…the world we live in is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact, whether actual or imagined, that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world that would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. (58)

To live in a world in which there were no random events — in which everything was, in theory, comprehensible; in which every act of nature was infused with meaning — is an irreplaceable gift of theology. … with the emergence of technocracies moral and intellectual coherence began to unravel. (59)

The faith of those who believed in Progress was based on the assumption that one could discern a purpose to the human enterprise, even without the theological scaffolding that supported the Christian edifice of belief. Science and technology were the chief instruments of Progress. (60)

This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to “access” information. (61)

There were several reasons for the rapid growth of the common school, but none was more obvious than that it was a necessary response to the anxieties and confusion aroused by information on the loose. (62)

Schools became technocracy’s first secular bureaucracies, structures for legitimizing some parts of the flow of information and discrediting other parts. Schools were, in short, a means of governing the ecology of information. (63)

Vernacular Bibles turned the Word of God into the words of God, since God became an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman, depending on the language in which His words were revealed. … And, of course, printing vastly enhanced the importance of individuality. (65)

technocratic-typographic America was the first nation ever to be argued into existence in print. (66)

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

In these forty-five words we may find the fundamental values of the literate, reasoning mind as fostered by the print revolution: a belief in privacy, individuality, intellectual freedom, open criticism, and community action. (66)

The telegraph removed space as an inevitable constraint on the movement of information, and, for the first time, transportation and communication were disengaged from each other. (67)

…telegraphy created the idea of context-free information — that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning. (67-68)

Within two years of this announcement, the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality of utility of the news they provided but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed. (68)

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. … The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose. (69-70)

The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accommodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy. (70)

It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms. (70)

5. The Broken Defenses

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. (71)

One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. (72)

…any educational institution, if it is to function well in the management of information, must have a theory about its purpose and meaning, must have the means to give clear expression to its theory, and must do so, to a large extent, by excluding information. (75)

all theories are oversimplifications, or at least lead to oversimplification. The rule of law is an oversimplification. A curriculum is an oversimplification. So is a family’s conception of a child. That is the function of theories — to oversimplify, and thus to assist believers in organizing, weighting, and excluding information. Therein lies the power of theories. Their weakness is that precisely because they oversimplify, they are vulnerable to attack by new information. When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless. (77)

The most imposing institutions for the control of information are religion and the state. They do their work in a somewhat more abstract way than do courts, schools, families, or political parties. They manage information through the creation of myths and stories that express theories about fundamental questions: why are we here, where have we come from, and where are we headed? (77)

Both Cardinal Bellarmine and William Jennings Bryan were fighting to maintain the authority of the Bible to control information about the profane world as well as the sacred. In their defeat, more was lost than the Bible’s claim to explain the origins and structure of nature. The Bible’s authority in defining and categorizing moral behavior was also weakened. (78)

Those who reject the Bible’s theory and who believe, let us say, in the theory of Science are also protected from unwanted information. … Their theory fails to give any guidance about moral information and, by definition, gives little weight to information that falls outside the constraints of science. … This is still another way to defining Technopoly. The term is aptly used for a culture whose available theories do not offer guidance about what is acceptable information in the moral domain. (79)

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 a problem. This process works fairly well in situations where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes — for example, in space rocketry or the construction of a sewer system. It works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes, as in medicine or architecture. And it is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant, such as in education, law, family life, and problems of personal maladjustment. I assume I do not need to convince the reader that there are no experts — there can be no experts — in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making. (88)

When Catholic priests use wine, wafers, and incantations to embody spiritual ideas, they acknowledge the mystery and the metaphor being used. But experts of Technopoly acknowledge no such overtones or nuances when they use forms, standardized tests, polls, and other machinery to give technical reality to ideas about intelligence, creativity, sensitivity, emotional imbalance, social deviance, or political opinion. They would have us believe that technology can plainly reveal the true nature of some human condition or belief because the score, statistic, or taxonomy has given it technical form. (90) [VIA: thus the conflict between faith and science.]

in Technopoly, all experts are invested with the charisma of priestliness. … The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. And 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. And 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. (91)

6. The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology

Philosophers may agonize over the questions “What is truth?” “What is intelligence?” “What is the good life?” But in Technopoly there is no need for such intellectual struggle. 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)

In Technopoly, we are surrounded by the wondrous effects of machines and are encouraged to ignore the ideas embedded in them. Which means we become blind to the ideological meaning of our technologies. (94)

“stethoscope” from the Greek words for “chest” and “I view.” (98)

The printed book, he argues, helped to create the detached and objective thinker. Similarly, the stethoscope

helped to create the objective physician who could move away from involvement with the patient’s experiences and sensations, to a more detached relation, less with the patient but more with the sounds from within the body. Undistracted by the motives and beliefs of the patient, the auscultator [another term for the stethoscope] could make a diagnosis from sounds that he alone heard emanating from body organs, sounds that he believed to be objective, bias-free representations of the disease process. – Stanley Joel Reiser in Medicine and the Reign of Technology

Here we have expressed two of the key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: Medicine is about disease, not the patient. And, what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable. (100)

What all this means is that even restrained and selective technological medicine becomes very difficult to do, economically undesirable, and possibly professionally catastrophic. The culture itself — its courts, its bureaucracies, its insurance system, the training of doctors, patients’ expectations — is organized to support technological treatments. There are no longer methods of treating illness; there is only one method — the technological one. Medical competence is now defined by the quantity and variety of machinery brought to bear on disease. (102)

Nature is an implacable enemy that can be subdued only by technical means; the problems created by technological solutions (doctors call these “side effects”) can be solved only by the further application of technology (we all know the joke about an amazing new drug that cures nothing but has interesting side effects); medical practice must focus on disease, not on the patient (which is why it is possible to say that the operation or therapy was successful but the patient died); and information coming from the patient cannot be taken as seriously as information coming from a machine, from which it follows that a doctor’s judgment, based on insight and experience, is less worthwhile than the calculations of his machinery. (103)

7. The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology

The fundamental metaphorical message of the computer, in short, is that we are machines — thinking machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless. (111)

…even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs. … What belief does your thermostat have? My thermostat has three beliefs — it’s too hot in here, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here – John McCarthy, the inventor of the term “artificial intelligence”

What is significant about this response is that it has redefined the meaning of the word “belief.” The remark rejects the view that humans have internal states of mind that are the foundation of belief and argues instead that “belief” means only what someone or something does. The remark also implies that simulating an idea is synonymous with duplicating the idea. And, most important, the remark rejects the idea that mind is a biological phenomenon. (111-112)

It is meaning, not utterance, that makes mind unique. I use “meaning” here to refer to something more than the result of putting together symbols the denotations of which are commonly shared by at least two people. As I understand it, meaning also includes those things we call feelings, experiences, and sensations that do not have to be, and sometimes cannot be, put into symbols. (112-113)

The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. I would argue that this is, on the face of it, nonsense. Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise form inadequate information. (119)

…literal-minded, narrowly focused computerized research is proving antithetical to the free exercise of that happy faculty known as serendipity — that is, the knack of achieving favorable results more or less by chance. – Sir Bernard Lovell

We know that doctors who rely entirely on machinery have lost skill in making diagnoses based on observation. We may well wonder what other human skills and traditions are being lost by our immersion in a computer culture. (121-122)

8. Invisible Technologies

If we define ideology as a set of assumptions of which we are barely conscious but which nonetheless directs our efforts to give shape and coherence to the world, then our most powerful ideological instrument is the technology of language itself. Language is pure ideology. (123)

To put it simply, like any important piece of machinery — television or the computer, for example — language has an ideological agenda that is apt to be hidden from view. In the case of language, that agenda is so deeply hidden from view. In the case of language, that agenda is so deeply integrated into our personalities and world-view that a special effort and, often, special training are required to detect its presence. (124)

A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased. (125)

Questions, then, are like computers or television or stethoscopes or lie detectors, in that they are mechanisms that give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts, or hide them. (127)

Aside from language itself, I don’t suppose there is a clearer example of a technology that doesn’t look like one than the mathematical sign known as zero. (127)

Few ‘scientific’ concepts have so thoroughly muddled the thinking of both scientists and the general public as that of the ‘intelligence quotient’ or ‘IQ.” The idea that intelligence can be quantitatively measured along a single linear scale has caused untold harm to our society in general, and to education in particular. – Joseph Weizenbaum

…in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people’s heads. (132)

The point is that the use of statistics in polling changes the meaning of “public opinion” as dramatically as television changes the meaning of “political debate.” In the American Technopoly, public opinion is a yes or no answer to an unexamined question.

| Second, the technique of polling promotes the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted by the pollster’s questions. But there is an alternative point of view, of which we might say, it is what Jefferson had in mind. An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate. A question may “invite” an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it; we might better say that people do not exactly “have” opinions but are, rather, involved in “opinioning.” That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning; and how people do their opinioning goes to the heart of the meaning of a democratic society. (134-135)

One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies. (138)

…modern business did not invent management; management invented modern business. (139)

…management, like the zero, statistics, IQ measurement, grading papers, or polling, functions as does any technology. It is not made up of mechanical parts, of course. It is made up of procedures and rules designed to standardize behavior. (141)

When a method of doing things becomes so deeply associated with an institution that we no longer know which came first — the method or the institution — then it is difficult to change the institution or even to imagine alternative methods for achieving its purposes. | And so it is necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they are good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty. (143)

9. Scientism

…how one reacts to death depends on one’s moral code, and that those who value open-mindedness are more tolerant of people whose values differ from theirs — which means that those who are open-minded, a fact that is not sufficiently appreciated, if known at all. (145)

By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly.

  1. the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior.
  2. that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis
  3. that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.

What we may call science, then, is the quest to find the immutable and universal laws that govern processes, presuming that there are cause-and-effect relations among these processes. (148)

What these people were doing — and Stanley Milgram was doing — is documenting the behavior and feeling of people as they confront problems posed by their culture. Their work is a form of storytelling. …the stories of social researchers are much closer in structure and purpose to what is called imaginative literature; that is to say, both a social researcher and a novelist give unique interpretations to a set of human events and support their interpretations with examples in various forms. Their interpretations cannot be proved or disproved but will draw their appeal from the power of their language, the depth of their explanations, the relevance of their examples, and the credibility of their themes. (154)

Both the novelist and the social researcher construct their stories by the use of archetypes and metaphors. (156)

I think it justifiable to say that, in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have come largely from the pens of social historians and researchers. …and you must acknowledge that our ideas of what we are like and what kind of country we live in come from their stories to a far greater extent than from the stories of our most renowned novelists. (156)

Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in a modern style. (157)

I have tried to show that science, social research, and the kind of work we call imaginative literature are three quite different kinds of enterprise. In the end, all of them are forms of storytelling — human attempts to account for our experience in coherent ways. But they have different aims, ask different questions, follow different procedures, and give different meanings to “truth.” (159)

When the new technologies and techniques and spirit of men like Galileo, Newton, and Bacon laid the foundations of natural science, they also discredited the authority of earlier accounts of the physical world, as found, for example, in the great tale of Genesis. By calling into question the truth of such accounts in one realm, science undermined the whole edifice of belief in sacred stories and ultimately swept away with it the source to which most humans had looked for moral authority. It is not too much to say, I think, that the desacralized world has been searching for an alternative source of moral authority ever since. (160)

That is why social “scientists” are so often to be found on our television screens, and on our best-seller lists, and in the “self-help” sections of airport bookstands: not because they can tell us how some humans sometimes behave but because they purport to tell us how we should; not because they speak to us as fellow humans who have lived longer, or experienced more of human suffering, or thought more deeply and reasoned more carefully about some set of problems, but because they consent to maintain the illusion that it is their data, their procedures, their science, and not themselves, that speak. We welcome them gladly, and the claim explicitly made or implied, because we need so desperately to find some source outside the frail and shaky judgments of mortals like ourselves to authorize our moral decisions and behavior. And outside of the authority of brute force, which can scarcely be called moral, we seem to have little left but the authority of procedures. | This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of nature science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “Why is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel and behave?” (161-162)

Science can tell us when a heart begins to beat, or movement begins, or what are the statistics on the survival of neonates of different gestational ages outside the womb. But science has no more authority than you do or I do to establish such criteria as the “true” definition of “life” or of human state or of personhood. Social research can tell us how some people behave in the presence of what they believe to be legitimate authority. But it cannot tell us when authority is “legitimate” and when not, or how we must decide, or when it may be right or wrong to obey. To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion. (162)

…as among the illusion of God, the illusion of Scientism, and no illusion or hope at all for an ultimate source of moral authority, which is most likely to serve the human interest, and which to prove most deadly, in the Age of Technopoly? (163)

10. The Great Symbol Drain

The blasphemer takes symbols as seriously as the idolater… (165)

What we are talking about here is not blasphemy but trivialization, against which there can be no laws. … This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else. Symbols that draw their meaning from traditional religious or national contexts must therefore be made impotent as quickly as possible — that is, drained of sacred or even serious connotations. The elevation of one god requires the demotion of another. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” applies as well to a technological divinity as any other.

| There are two intertwined reasons that make it possible to trivialize traditional symbols. The first, as neatly expressed by the social critic Jay Rosen, is that, although symbols, especially images, are endlessly repeatable, they are not inexhaustible. Second, the more frequently a significant symbol is used, the less potent is its meaning. (165)

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 at all. … They become only sounds, not symbols. (166)

Moreover, the journey to meaninglessness of symbols is a function not only of the frequency with which they are invoked but of the indiscriminate contexts in which they are used. An obscenity, for example, can do its work best when it is reserved for situations that call forth anger, disgust, or hatred. When it is used as an adjective for every third noun in a sentence, irrespective of the emotional context, it is deprived of its magical effects and, in deed, of its entire point. (167)

Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory. In the process, a fundamental principle of capitalist ideology was rejected: namely, that the producer and consumer were engaged ina rational enterprise in which consumers made choices on the basis of a careful consideration of the quality of a product and their own self-interest. (169)

But today, the television commercial, for example, is rarely about the character of the products. It is about the character of the consumers of products. (169-170)

What this means is that somewhere near the cor of Technopoly is a vast industry with license to use all available symbols to further the interests of commerce, by devouring the psyches of consumers. … The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition. (170)

In the institutional form it has taken in the United States, advertising is a symptom of a world-view that sees tradition as an obstacle to its claims. There can, of course, be no functioning sense of tradition without a measure of respect for symbols. Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power. (171)

The point is that cultures must have narratives and will find them where they will, even if they lead to catastrophe. The alternative is to live without meaning, the ultimate negation of life itself. It is also to the point to say that each narrative is given its form and its emotional texture through a cluster of the symbols that call for respect and allegiance, even devotion. (173)

The United States Constitution … is our political equivalent of Genesis. (173)

But in all cases, the trivialization of the symbols that express, support, and dramatize the story will accompany the decline. Symbol drain is both a symptom and a cause of a loss of narrative. (173)

We are living at a time when all the once regnant world systems that have sustained (also distorted) Western intellectual life, from theologies to ideologies, are taken to be in severe collapse. This leads to a mood of skepticism, an agnosticism of judgment, sometimes a world-weary nihilism in which even the most conventional minds begin to question both distinctions of value and the value of distinctions. – Irving Howe

Into this void comes the Technopoly story, with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost. The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. 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)

11. The Loving Resistance Fighter

Anyone who practices the art of cultural criticism must endure being asked, What is the solution to the problems you describe?

No one is an expert on how to live a life. I can, however, offer a Talmudic-like principle that seems to me an effective guide for those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly. It is this: You must try to be a loving resistance fighter. That is the doctrine, as Hillel might say. Here is the commentary: By “loving,” I mean 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)

Three such experiments are of particular importance. The first, undertaken toward the end of the eighteenth century…

  • Can a nation allow the greatest possible degree of political and religious freedom and still retain a sense of identity and purpose?

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century,

  • Can a nation retain a sense of cohesion and community by allowing into it people from all over the world?

Now, the great experiment of Technopoly,

  • Can a nation preserve its history, originality, and humanity by submitting itself totally to the sovereignty of a technological thought-world?

Those who resist the American 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 per-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 that 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.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television st to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. (184-185)

Thus, to chart the ascent of man, which I will here call “the ascent of humanity,” we must join art and science. But we must also join the past and the present, for the ascent of humanity is above all a continuous story. It is, in fact, a story of creation, although not quite the one that the fundamentalists fight so fiercely to defend. It is the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder. And it certainly includes the development of various religious systems as a means of giving order and meaning to existence. In this context, it is inspiring to note that the Biblical version of creation, to the astonishment of everyone except possibly the fundamentalists, has turned out to be a near-perfect blend of artistic imagination and scientific intuition: the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, now widely accepted by cosmologists, confirms in essential details what the Bible proposes as having been the case “in the beginning.” (187)

To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child – Cicero

I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. … For to know about your roots is not merely to know where your grandfather came from and what he had to endure. It is also to know where your ideas come from and why you happen to believe them; to know where your moral and aesthetic sensibilities come from. It is to know where your world, not just your family, comes from. (188-189)

This is the paradox of imagination in science, that it has for its aim the impoverishment of imagination. By that outrageous phrase, I mean that the highest flight of scientific imagination is to weed out the proliferation of new ideas. In science, the grand view is a miserly view, and a rich model of the universe is one which is as poor as possible in hypotheses. – Jacob Bronowski, The Identity of Man

What makes science possible is not our ability to recognize “truth” but our ability to recognize falsehood. (193)

No education can neglect such sacred texts as Genesis, the New Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita. Each of them embodies a style and a world-view that tell as much about the ascent of humanity as any book ever written. To these books I would add the Communist Manifesto, since I think it reasonable to classify this as a sacred text, embodying religious principles to which millions of people have so recently been devoted. (198)

To summarize: I am proposing, as a beginning, a curriculum in which all subjects are presented as a stage in humanity’s historical development; in which the philosophies of science, of history, of language, of technology, and of religion are taught, and in which there is a strong emphasis on classical forms of artistic expression. (199)

I have no illusion that such an education program can bring a halt to the trust of a technological thought-world. But perhaps it will help to begin and sustain a serious conversation that will allow us to distance ourselves from that thought-world, and then criticize and modify it. Which is the hope of my book as well. (199)

— VIA —

Reading Postman is a delight and an awakening (my first introduction was Amusing). For the first time, however, I was struck with the critique as negative and cautionary, as his other books tend to be. While it is true we must be diligent in our observations, evaluations, and ultimately understandings of what is happening to us (or rather, what we are doing to ourselves), there is debate as to the value judgments we place on such developments. Thus, I am now also cautious, not just of the culture, but of the critiques and critics of culture with the same thoughtfulness.

Is it not possible that progress is not a myth? Is it not possible that the redefinition or collapse of some symbols is a benefit to our humanity? Is it not possible that there is beauty and wonder and mystery in the sacred and profane coming together? Is it not possible that scientism is a somewhat beneficial (although incomplete) awakening of some sorts?

These and other questions arise out of any critique, though regardless, the critique is of primary importance for the conversation. For that, Postman’s work is, well, critical! Thank you, Mr. Postman, for your continued contributions to the conversation, and the enlightenment you provide for those of us who truly seek truth in all its variegated forms.

About VIA


  1. Pingback: Amusing Ourselves to Death | Notes & Review | vialogue

  2. Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact
    was a entertainment account it. Look advanced to more introduced
    agreeable from you! However, how could we be in contact?

  3. Pingback: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology | Science Book a Day

  4. Pingback: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

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  6. Pingback: What’s a Digital Leader? Why Must They Rise? - Matthew Doan

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