Book Review: Technopoly

The late Neil Postman’s book, Technopoly, is a sobering assessment of a technologically obsessed American culture.  The fact that the book was presciently published in 1992, long before the Internet became ubiquitous, is alarming.  Don’t be fooled though, Postman isn’t a pure Luddite and this isn’t a book that is anti-technology.  Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Postman harbors a sense of digital ambivalence.  Like Postman, I don’t necessarily condemn the technologies themselves per se, although I certainly share some of his concerns.  Technology can complement human values or it can desecrate them.  It all depends on its application.  So how did American culture become a Technopoly?

According to Postman, a technological history of a society can be broken into three phases: tool-using, technocracy, and Technopoly.  In a tool-using culture, technology is used merely as a physical tool (think utensils),  where as in a technocracy the tools “play a central role in the thought world of the culture”.  In a Technopoly, then, the culture can only be understood through the tools.  Technopoly can thus be thought of as a “totalitarian technocracy”.  At the time this book was published Postman claimed that United States was the only Technopoly in existence (I suspect he would revise that statement today if he were still alive).

A Technopoly is a society that thinks that knowledge can only be had through numbers and thus, it is a society that puts an obsessive focus on trying to quantify life and puts excessive trust in experts.  It’s also a society that believes that management is a science.  I suspect Postman, if he were still alive, would agree with me that it’s the soft technologies that are the most insidious.  You know, things like IQ tests, SATs, standardized forms, taxonomies, and opinion polls.

The idea of trying to quantify things like mercy, love, hate, beauty, or creativity simply wouldn’t make sense to the likes of Galileo, Shakespeare, or Thomas Jefferson, according to  Postman.  Yet, this is exactly what many of our platonified social scientists try to do today.  He goes on to say that, “If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did.”  Or as Marshall McLuhan succinctly put it: “The medium is the message.”

So where did this obsessive focus on quantifying begin?  Postman traces its history back to the first instance of grading students’ papers (quantitatively), which occurred at Cambridge University in 1792, thanks to the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.  Farish’s idea of applying a quantitative value to human thought was crucial to those who believed we could construct a mathematical concept of reality.

So what beliefs emerge in the technological onslaught?  Here’s one passage that resonated with me.

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.

Another modern side effect of Technopoly is information overload and I think it’s fair to say that Postman was disgusted by our obsession with information and statistics.  There are statistics and studies that support almost any belief, no matter how nonsensical.  Personally, I think Nassim Taleb put it well: “To bankrupt a fool, give him information.”  Postman stretches a popular adage to drive home this point himself.  “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and therefore, “to a man with a computer, everything looks like data.”

Postman reminds us, however, that not all information is created equal.  He writes: “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.”  For example, consider the following noise that I’ve made up, but could easily be recited on ESPN:  77% of all Superbowl games have at least one field goal scored within the last seven minutes and 27 seconds of the third quarter.  Even if this were true, does it really tell us anything useful?  If one has an opinion they want verified, they can easily go on the Web and find “statistics” to support their belief.  Sadly, there seems to be not only a market for useless information on the Web today, but for harmful information too.

A Technopoly, according to Postman, also promotes the idea that education is a means to an end, instead of being an end in itself.  He laments the fact that education is now meant to merely train people for employment instead of instilling a purpose and human values in them.

Ultimately, reading this book reminded me that those who don’t learn how to use technology will be used by it.

[click the following for and copies of the book]



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