Technopoly – The Surrender of Culture to Technology

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Key insights from

By Neil Postman

What you’ll learn

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic. He is best known for his work in the philosophy of technology, which he often called media ecology. Amongst the numerous books he wrote on the subject through the second half of the 20th century, Technopoly, is one of his best known. Postman offers a technological perspective on history, evaluating three stages of culture, each with its own relationship to technology. According to Postman, our present culture—a technopoly—needs to reconsider the ways we use our tools as well as the ways our tools use us. Originally published in 1991, many have commented that Technopoly has not only aged well, but becomes more relevant with every technological innovation.

Read on for key insights from Technopoly.

1. Technologies are neither purely good nor purely evil, but rather mixed goods.

When it comes to technology, criticism usually does not fare well. It is often challenging to recognize the technological layers that compose day to day life in developed countries. Technologies are often invisible, and along with their invisibility comes an authority that seems inviolable. To criticize seemingly harmless technologies is unnecessarily technophobic, old fashioned, and irrelevant. Why would we not desire better medicine, faster means of communication and transportation, better machines for optimizing labor, and so on?

Against the overt benefits of these technologies, we must ask if there is more to the story. Consider something as unquestionable as writing. Writing is one of the oldest technologies in the world, and undoubtedly has benefited human civilization in countless ways. No one would dare to question its necessity for our livelihood, and yet, when it was first introduced, its dangers were easily recognized. Surely it greatly enhances communication, education, and every field of inquiry known to man. Yet some, like Plato, also considered writing to be dangerous for mankind. In oral cultures, one’s memory needs to be trained. It was a unique means by which someone could treasure wisdom within their hearts as they sought good lives. With the advent of writing, however, one need not worry about memorizing and treasuring important knowledge, because it could be kept safely outside of the mind in tablets. The same technology that created literacy also damages our memory faculty.

Neither of these things can occur without the other. Using writing has tradeoffs that must be calculated according to the individual. Likewise, all technologies, in different ways, affect us individually and corporately. The question is not whether technology should or shouldn’t be allowed in society. Society is always technological in some way. The question is rather, what are the goods of a particular technology? Depending on its stated purpose, origin, and actual function, any technology can disclose or obscure its various effects.

2. All cultures begin as tool-using cultures.

In examining the development of a culture according to its technologies, the first stage of development is a tool-using culture. All cultures up to the 17th century were tool-using, and this highlights how developed countries today have leapt forward in the past 400 years. But it is not the abundance of new devices that make a society tool-using or not. Ancient Rome was known to have a sophisticated system of roads, sewers, aqueducts, and other devices that furthered their political and economic predominance. Likewise, the late Middle Ages saw an explosion in technological capability, as indicated by men like Leonardo Da Vinci.

In a tool-using culture, technology is not autonomous, a force of its own. Technology is integrated into a broader social or religious system that governs technology. Though technologies change and alter a culture, they do not set its pace. Technologies are enacted in culture under two aims. First, they are made to solve specific practical problems, such as the grinding of wheat, the tilling of dirt, and the fastening of nails. For these tasks we have mills, plows, and hammers. Second, though not entirely unrelated, technologies are made to facilitate something in the arts, politics, or religion. The technologies of paints and scaffolding for Renaissance frescoes, as well as quarrying stone and staining glass for cathedrals, are also examples.

It is important to note that all of these technologies could be conceivably made, processed, or gathered in a technological culture developed beyond the tool-using stage. These technologies are not strictly limited to tool-using cultures. The important aspect here is not what the technologies are, but what position and power they exert in culture. The introduction of better farming, building, and architectural technologies undoubtedly affect society, but only insofar as they adhere to the social and religious status quo.

3. Tool-using cultures develop into technocratic cultures.

Most of recorded human history has provided examples of tool-using cultures. In a technocracy, technology itself becomes an institution, a recognized force harnessed to bend culture to its own agenda. Though technocracies were not formed until the era of modernity in the late 18th century, the late Middle Ages indicated their arrival. In technocracies, “tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture.” The clock, printing press, and telescope are examples of technologies that not only changed society with their advent, but recalibrated it according to new standards that exist because of the device.

Perhaps the most telling historical example we have is Galileo and his research on the solar system. Though he was not the first to posit the heliocentric view of the solar system, he was the first to significantly augment his observations by means of the telescope. In openly challenging the Church’s approved view of the cosmos, Galileo was rejecting its authority. By depending on the telescope as a technological extension of his empirical data, he was unknowingly positing a massive shift in Europe’s view of knowledge.

This is probably the most notable case of the Church having its cultural authority diminished by the advent of a new technology. Undoubtedly, numerous other factors were at play in this historical moment, but what cannot be said is that the telescope was merely incidental. Here was a device which could reveal a picture of the universe that was in direct contradiction to Church doctrine. Of course, one incident does not make a technocracy, but as time went on and science began to focus on invention, technology became a growing cultural force.

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4. Our culture is fast becoming a technopoly.

Because of its extraordinary resources, wealth, and innovation, the United States’ development has led it to the point where technology shapes everything. In technopoly, our terms and institutions are reconstructed on the basis of technology. Art, religion, family, truth, intelligence, politics and more are all being redefined according to the constraints of our technological society. Though it is hard to pin down a precise moment when the US became a technopoly, Ford’s assembly line in the early 20th century clearly reflected the values of the emerging technopoly.

Efficiency became a—if not the—primary cultural value. Under this value, nothing is more efficient than machines. Thus humanity began to envision their technology eclipsing them in every area of importance. Fears of automation lurking in cultural memory of the industrial age only amplified this sense that now technology was a self-sufficient force, ultimately beyond human power to restrain it. But these fears are subordinated to our awe concerning the gifts that technology has brought to all. Technology made life longer, cleaner, safer, and more comfortable. It could solve seemingly every practical problem, and even solved some yet unheard of.

Any other kinds of problems were removed from our notice. Religion, politics, the arts, all take a backseat to technological advancement for its own sake. Innovation has unquestionable authority. Why would we not produce more goods for less cost or new devices when designed? Why would we hold back on optimizing not only business, but religion, family life, and political discourse for expediency? The fact is, in our society these questions are rhetorical, not actual. This is a novelty in human history. Never before has a culture prized its technological development so highly without question. Thus in a technopoly, technology assumes an unquestionable, fundamental relevance in all spheres of life.

5. Technopoly likens men to machines.

In a technopoly, cultural values are determined by the overarching systems of technology. For the United States, this is defined largely by the computer. At the apex of modern technological revolutions, the computer has commodified information, transformed communication, and developed economic infrastructure like no other device. Moreover, the computer has become the dominant metaphor of society. It redefines work, power, nature, and information itself. Ultimately, it “redefines humans as ‘information processors’ and nature itself as information to be processed.” To be human is to be more like a machine.

Praise for the efficiency, infallibility, and complexity of computers is paradigmatic in contemporary society. Affirmation of the computer as the most powerful technological device known to man has led to its personalization. We think of computers not as machines that process information, but entities that can think better than us. We attribute the active voice to our computers, enforcing a perception of the computer as an agent that thinks, believes, and has moods. While this was once science fiction, the contemporary quest for artificial intelligence has been motivated by a mechanistic view of human beings, and a personalistic view of computers. This collapse between two kinds of being—human and machine—has led to the belief that humans are machines, just inferior in operation.

Even where these assumptions are not explicit, they still reflect a new set of anthropological claims regarding human nature and a new philosophy of knowledge. It is not uncommon to use the language of programming and deprogramming with regard to a person. We speak of our wires getting crossed, of having a switch get flipped, or having a light-bulb moment when coming to realizations. All of these terms suggest that at bottom humans are just complex mechanisms, systems that have evolved to perform various functions with more or less accuracy.

Alongside this assumption is another: that computers contain knowledge and are the main authority to which users must defer. What computers possess, however, is not knowledge but information. Computers are tools, not agents. They do not know, they give data outputs. Computers are calculation devices which may be designed to act consciously, but in reality they just carry out complex functions. Though these seem to be obvious remarks when stated, they are not reflected in society. When it comes to our assumptions concerning knowledge, computers “know more” because they contain more. Knowledge has become a term synonymous with information. Because computers can contain and process information on a much larger scale than the average person, they seem to be more intelligent than people. But information acquisition is a questionable definition of intelligence and a foolhardy one for knowledge and wisdom.

6. In a technopoly, all traditions become trivial.

Technopoly operates for the sake of technological progress, with efficiency as its chief value. In its wake, all other authorities are displaced and left irrelevant. Its conquest was a bloodless revolution, resulting in a totalizing rule of technologies as their own ends. As the 20th century unfolded, the reduction of all other symbolic institutions to trivialities was assured by advertising.

“The adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of everything else.” Put differently, there is no longer any distinction between sacred and profane. Due to the development of modern advertising, every tradition and its symbols—be they political, religious, or other—are drained of their potency. Before images were readily produced and could displace print, an image held power in its rarity. Our environment was not plastered with pictures and depictions, and as such, symbols were tied more directly to their contexts. For example, if one was looking for an image of Jesus or Mary, he or she was most likely to find it in a Catholic Church, where it was explicitly tied to its tradition. Increasingly over the 20th century, and especially since the advent of the internet, considering a worldview or entering a church are not necessary to see depictions of Christianity.

The problem here is not that a tradition’s symbols may be seen as disconnected from it, but that they are emptied out and employed in other contexts for different purposes. Harp music and rays of sunlight, which once were imagery of the Judeo-Christian afterlife, may now be connected via advertisement to anything from a bag of chips to an automobile. The implicit message in these images is “Now this is heaven!” without any serious reflection on heaven required.

The jumble of symbols that compose modern advertising is banal and not to be taken seriously. And this is precisely the problem. Nothing is to be taken seriously beyond the whims of technological development. The traditions that provide coherent stories and possible answers to fundamental questions are but symbolic resources for our acculturation to technopoly. This is chiefly shown in advertising, which funnels everything from the cross to the flag and the arts into abrupt contexts that serve the acquisition of new devices. “How” is the operative word in technopoly, never “why.” It is never serious but silly, never blasphemous but trivial, and never more dangerous than when it is thought to be absolutely normal.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you’re ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Technopoly here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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