Book Review: Technopoly

Published nearly twenty-five years ago in 1993, Neil Postman’s Technopoly eerily forecasts today’s Twitter-enabled Trumpian world with great prescience. Consider this quote buried in the second to last chapter: “What we are talking about here is not blasphemy but trivialization, against which there can be no laws. In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs . . . because the adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else.” Donald Trump himself is mentioned later in the chapter (along with the now forgotten Lee Iacocca) as an example of the culturally unaware anti-hero of the new age.

Mr. Postman offers his basic premise in the book’s introduction, where he brashly states that C.P. Snow had it wrong in his famous Two Cultures essay. He takes issue with Snow’s argument that the two opposing cultures in our society are science and the humanities. Instead, the author posits that the real conflict is between technologists and everyone else.

Channeling a philosophical tone, the first chapter starts with a recounting of Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Theuth tells King Thamus of his new invention called writing. Countering Theuth’s claim that writing will improve the wisdom and memory of the Egyptians, King Thamus replies that the invention will have the opposite effect, that it will cause people to cease to rely on their memory and make them more ignorant. The point is also made by the King that an inventor of a technology cannot objectively judge its merits. There are, indeed, tradeoffs to any new technology.

The author thereafter introduces a taxonomy of cultures as they relate to their use of technology throughout history. In the simple Tool-Using culture, technology was subservient to the societal or religious imperatives. This later transformed into the Technocracy, where tools played a central role in the thought-world of the society. The final development was to what Post calls a Technopoly, a world in which all alternatives to technology have been eliminated. This is a world where technology reigns supreme and becomes a sort of religion to the populace. In the author’s view, The United States has crossed the line into becoming a pure Technopoly.

The characteristics of Technopolies are then explored in detail. This includes an ever increasing information glut, a situation where information loses its meaning and society relinquishes its desire and ability to control the flow of information. A related factor is an over-reliance on the social sciences and a loss of the ability to distinguish between the hard facts of the natural sciences and the hidden opinions and biases of social science. Through the ill-advised adoration of the social sciences, society has come to believe that anything can be quantitatively measured and computed. We use IQ tests to measure intelligence. There are aptitude tests and medical tests galore. Anything that can be measured is done so without to regard to efficacy or meaning. With this barrage of data, information becomes trivialized as it becomes difficult to distinguish facts from the spewing of nonsense. Amusingly, a New Yorker cartoon is quoted which wryly states: “A preliminary census report indicates that for the first time in our nation’s history female anthropologists outnumber male professional golfers.”

The author devotes the final chapter to a handful of suggestions to counter these trends. His basic premise is that technology should never be accepted as the natural order of things, that we should not substitute calculation for human judgement. To that end, he suggests altering the educational curriculum in various ways. First, he says that all subjects should be grounded in history. When studying science, students should be aware of the personal histories that led to discoveries. Second, the curriculum should emphasize the scientific mode of thinking. And finally, he wants students to better understand language itself and, specifically, to be exposed to a course in semantics in order to be aware of deep-rooted linguistic assumptions and biases. In the author’s belief, a dynamic humanistic education is needed to push back against the anti-historical bias of our technologists.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
By Neil Postman
Alfred A. Knopf, March 1993
222 pages, $21.00

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