Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology
is a book written by Neil Postman
Neil Postman was an American author, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known by the general public for his 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For more than forty years, he was associated with New York University...
in 1992 that describes the development and characteristics of a "technopoly". He defines a technopoly as a society in which technology is deified, meaning “the culture seeks its authorisation in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology”. It is characterised by a surplus of information generated by technology, which technological tools are in turn employed to cope with, in order to provide direction and purpose for society and individuals.
Postman considers technopoly to be the most recent of three kinds of cultures distinguished by shifts in their attitude towards technology – tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. Each, he says, is produced by the emergence of new technologies that "compete with old ones…mostly for dominance of their worldviews".
According to Postman, a tool-using culture employs technologies only to solve physical problems, as spears, cooking utensils, and water mills do, and to "serve the symbolic world" of religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...
A tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past. Common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes , but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings...
, as tools used to construct cathedrals do. He claims that all such cultures are either theocratic
Theocracy is a form of organization in which the official policy is to be governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, or simply pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religious sect or religion....
or "unified by some metaphysical theory", which forced tools to operate within the bounds of a controlling ideology and made it "almost impossible for technics to subordinate people to its own needs".
In a technocracy, rather than existing in harmony with a theocratic world-view, tools are central to the "thought-world" of the culture. Postman claims that tools "attack culture…[and] bid to become culture", subordinating existing traditions, politics, and religions. Postman cites the example of the telescope
A telescope is an instrument that aids in the observation of remote objects by collecting electromagnetic radiation . The first known practical telescopes were invented in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 1600s , using glass lenses...
destroying the Judeo-Christian
Judeo-Christian is a term used in the United States since the 1940s to refer to standards of ethics said to be held in common by Judaism and Christianity, for example the Ten Commandments...
belief that the Earth is the centre of the solar system
The Solar System consists of the Sun and the astronomical objects gravitationally bound in orbit around it, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun...
, bringing about a "collapse…of the moral centre of gravity in the West".
Postman characterises a technocracy as compelled by the "impulse to invent", an ideology first advocated by Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...
in the early 17th Century. He believed that human beings could acquire knowledge about the natural world and use it to "improve the lot of mankind", which led to the idea of invention for its own sake and the idea of progress. According to Postman, this thinking became widespread in Europe from the late 18th Century.
However, a technocratic society remains loosely controlled by social and religious traditions, he clarifies. For instance, he states that the United States remained bound to notions of "holy men and sin, grandmothers and families, regional loyalties and two-thousand-year-old traditions" at the time of its founding.
Postman defines technopoly as a "totalitarian technocracy", which demands the "submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology". Echoing Ellul’s 1964 conceptualisation of technology as autonomous, "self-determinative" independently of human action, and undirected in its growth, technology in a time of Technopoly actively eliminates all other ‘thought-worlds’. Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning in machines and technique.
This is exemplified, in Postman’s view, by the computer, the "quintessential, incomparable, near-perfect" technology for a technopoly. It establishes sovereignty over all areas of human experience based on the claim that it "'thinks' better than we can".
Values of "technological theology"
A technopoly is founded on the belief that technique is superior to lax, ambiguous and complex human thinking and judgement, in keeping with one of Frederick W. Taylor’s ‘Principles of scientific management’. It values efficiency, precision, and objectivity.
It also relies upon the "elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity". The idea of progress is overcome by the goal of obtaining information for its own sake. Therefore, a technopoly is characterised by a lack of a cultural coherence or a "transcendent sense of purpose or meaning".
Postman attributes the origins of technopoly to ‘scientism
Scientism refers to a belief in the universal applicability of the systematic methods and approach of science, especially the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints...
’, the belief held by early social scientists including Auguste Compte that the practices of natural and social science would reveal the truth of human behaviour and provide "an empirical source of moral authority".
Consequences of technopoly
Postman refers to Harold Innis
Harold Adams Innis was a Canadian professor of political economy at the University of Toronto and the author of seminal works on media, communication theory and Canadian economic history. The affiliated Innis College at the University of Toronto is named for him...
’ concept of "knowledge monopolies" to explain the manner in which technology usurps power in a technopoly. New technologies transform those who can create and use them into an "elite group", a knowledge monopoly, which is granted "undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence". Subsequently, Postman claims, those outside of this monopoly are led to believe in the false "wisdom" offered by the new technology, which has little relevance to the average person.
Postman also argues that the information endlessly generated by technologies in a technopoly, particularly communications technologies, result in "information glut". Telegraphy
Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of messages via some form of signalling technology. Telegraphy requires messages to be converted to a code which is known to both sender and receiver...
Photography is the art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film...
, he states, redefined information from something that sought out to solve particular problems to a commodity that is potentially irrelevant to the receiver. Thus, in technopoly, "information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose".
Postman claims that this surplus of information results in a lack of understanding, since "technology deprives us of the social, political, historical
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...
In philosophy, Logic is the formal systematic study of the principles of valid inference and correct reasoning. Logic is used in most intellectual activities, but is studied primarily in the disciplines of philosophy, mathematics, semantics, and computer science...
al, or spiritual
Spiritualism is a belief system or religion, postulating the belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living...
bases for knowing what is beyond belief". Moreover, he argues that too much information leads to the inevitable refutation of any theory, causing information to become "essentially meaningless".
He also describes some more tangible implications of the excess of information produced in a technopoly, including ‘iatrogenics’ (treatment-induced illnesses) in the medical field and the understanding of individuals through "invisible technologies" like IQ tests and opinion polls.
A technopoly also trivialises significant cultural and religious symbols through their endless reproduction. Postman echoes Jean Baudrillard
Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer. His work is frequently associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism.-Life:...
in this view, who theorises that "technique as a medium quashes…the ‘message’ of the product (its use value)", since a symbol’s "social finality gets lost in seriality".
Postman’s argument is based on the premise that the uses of a technology are determined by its characteristics – "its functions follow from its form". This draws on Marshall McLuhan
Herbert Marshall McLuhan, CC was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar—a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communication theorist...
's theory that "the medium is the message" because it controls the scale and form of human interaction. Hence, Postman claims that once introduced, each technology "plays out its hand", leaving its users to be, in Thoreau’s words, “tools of our tools”.
According to Tiles and Oberdiek
The instrumental conception of technology is Mary Tiles' and Hans Oberdiek's description of the theory technological artefacts are value neutral...
, this pessimistic understanding of pervasive technology renders individuals "strangely impotent". David Croteau and William Hoynes criticise such technologically deterministic arguments for underestimating the agency of a technology’s users. Russell Neuman suggests that ordinary people skilfully organise, filter, and skim information, and actively “seek out” information rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.
It has also been argued that technologies are shaped by social factors more so than by their inherent properties. Star suggests that Postman neglects to account for the "actual development, adaptation and regulation of technology".
According to Tiles and Oberdiek, pessimistic accounts of technology overriding culture are based on a particular vision of human values. They emphasise "artistic creativity, intellectual culture, development of interpersonal relations, or religion as being the realms in which human freedom finds expression and in which human fulfilment is to be found". They suggest that technological optimists merely adhere to an alternative worldview that values the "exercise of reason in the service of free will" and the ability of technological developments to "serve human ends".
Science and ideology
Postman’s characterisation of technology as an ideological being has also been criticised. He refers to the "god" of technopolists speaking of "efficiency, precision, objectivity", and hence eliminating the notions of sin and evil which exist in a separate "moral universe". Stuart Weir argues that technologies are "not ideological beings that take…near-anthropomorphic control of people’s loves, beliefs and aspirations". He in fact suggests that new technologies have had remarkably little effect on pre-existing human beliefs.
Persistence of old world ideologies
Postman speaks of technological change as "ecological…one significant change generates total change". Hence, technopoly brought about by communications technologies must result in a drastic change in the beliefs of a society, such that prior "thought worlds" of ritual, myth, and religion cannot exist. Star conversely argues that new tools may create new environments, but do "not necessarily extinguish older beliefs or the ability to act pragmatically upon them".
Gonzaga University is a private Roman Catholic university located in Spokane, Washington, United States. Founded in 1887 by the Society of Jesus, it is one of 28 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and is named after the young Jesuit saint, Aloysius Gonzaga...
professor Paul De Palma wrote for the technology journal SIGCAS
in March 1995 praising "the elegant little book". He also remarked:
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