Book Review: Technopoly
by Neil Postman
My Rating: 5/5
When considering the impact of technology on modern society, the narrative is often framed as being between those who promote and push forward with developing technology and those who oppose it. Neil Postman argues that this is incorrect, and that the real frame of conflict is between technology and everyone else.
This narrative may seem unnecessarily confrontational and dramatic, but Postman makes a compelling argument. He details his points as to how technology is seen as a close friend, giving unconditionally its gifts to society and allowing us to avail of its use. He finds it important however to moderate the din of its enthusiasts by presenting his dissenting voice of opposition in which he details why he thinks that technology and its uncontrolled adoption and diffusion into society can contain many harmful effects. Technology is a friend he concedes, but it also has a dark side and its gifts come with costs.
A common underlying theme throughout the book was that although technology has changed over time – indeed very rapidly over the last 150 years – the human brain and our social, mental, spiritual and physical needs have remained the same. Technology has not been able to allow us to rise above our very human constraints – and nor should it – for it is but an advancement of our tools, not our type. With this understanding, we can see how technology may introduce new links into society which leave our human brains and their modes of functionality at a clear disadvantage.
Postman goes on to state that whenever we admit a new technology into our society, we should do so with cautious, weary eyes rather than the unfettered enthusiasm of a child excited about a new toy. Often a technology can introduce or even permanently alter our ways of establishing truth, knowledge and justice. Even with the introduction of the mathematical concept of zero, new ideas such as that of calculable debt were able to change how an economic and ownership system functioned.
New technology can also change what words mean. ‘Evidence’ may have historically been understood to mean witness testimony, but its definition has arguably been expanded to include technological evidence such as image captures or video footage. This has also changed what we mean when we say we ‘know’ what may have happened.
One very insightful example that has spared no-one in its effects was that given of the clock. According to Neil Postman, who himself references Lewis Mumford, clocks were initially used inside Monasteries where they helped to alert and inform the religious devotees as to the timings of their proscribed rituals. Once it was taken outside of the Monastery walls however, it permeated society and became a tool to synchonrise the actions of men and allowed the birth of modern Capitalism and the 9-5 as we know it. One could have hardly predicted its wide-ranging consequences when the technology was being introduced then, so will we take heed to this principle going forth? That is up to us.
Other examples include how to spread of the Printing Press eventually led to an attack of the millennia-old Oral Tradition, and how the invention of the Telescope played a pivotal part of the disintegration of Christianity in Europe via the claims of Earth not being the centre of the universe and humans being removed from their pedestal of sacred uniqueness and importance. The subsequent decline of tradition and religion in Europe and America led to belief in the idea of constant moral, economic and social progress, the same idea which fuels our blind trust in technology today by virtue of association. Postman goes on to argue that we have now come to the point where we have replaced our idea of human progress with that of technological progress, our conflating of the two has led to the latter’s triumph.
Further commentary on the state of information overload the average person experiences on a daily basis allows Postman to raise further questions on how we have come to accept our current state. While some may adopt the idea that being advertised to is a normal fact of modern day life, I found it insightful and thought provoking to understand that the best sources of knowledge are often the most restrictive in what they are allow to teach and be taught. The example given of a University was something I found which described this best. As part of a university course, we are expected to limit our inputs to a limited number of verified and agreed upon sources. This limitation does not necessarily lower the quality of the knowledge gained, rather it is increased because of it. Here, quality is truly prioritised over quantity – so why do we accept anything less than this standard in day to day life?
We are continuously bombarded with information and see the addition of information from endless sources as a proof of our continuous advancement, but as shown – the best institutions for higher learning always limit their inputs. Should we not take our lesson from them? I also found it interesting when Neil Postman commented that Plato and Aristotle did not associate the need for efficiency and productivity with the refinement of a man’s mind. For them, the ideas did not mix. Achieving high efficiency and productivity was the goal of laborious work destined for slaves, it was not necessarily something which aided in the cause of human moral and intellectual advancement. Are we too in need of realising this truth once more?
Postman goes on to claim America as the first society to give free reign to technology dominance and intrusion on society – the first real ‘Technopoly’. America was fertile ground for such a revolutionary change due to the natural distrust for constraints and the pervading frontier mentality when it came to business initiatives. This lack of concern for long term well-being allowed ample opportunity for ‘radical technological intrusions’ to work their way in to everyday society, the result being that people are generally heedless as to the origins and effects of the technologies that surround them. It is as though the sacred First Commandment has been appropriated to Science by which it is meant that there shall be no other god beside it.
The result of a Technopoly is the vast, gaping disconnect between our inherently human experience and the information digitised, numerated and presented to us via complex algorithms and ever increasing computers and machines. A vivid example provided is the now common reliance by medical professionals of their tools to the extent that they have almost entirely abandoned the subjective but real impact of an illness on the mental and psychological wellbeing of a patient. Quite often many of the doctors involved with a patient’s treatment may never even have direct contact with them, instead working on their ailments remotely via the study of medical machinery output which has translated their human pain into a machine-readable value. As Postman eloquently writes, a Technopoly aspires to remove as much mystery and subjectivity as it can and replace it with discrete figures and indisputable facts. Perhaps some aspects of the human enterprise however, are not amenable to this attempt at standardisation.
To conclude, this book was fundamental in opening my eyes to the envelopment of technology in our culture, and to not blindly accept the narrative that it is inherently good. It is hard to believe that this book was written in 1992 as it seems to describe contemporary culture perfectly. One can only imagine the horror Neil Postman would have expressed if he saw how society had changed since then.
The book is filled with countless more examples which made me redefine what it means to have a technology benefit a culture, and to understand that it also comes at a cost.
Something is gained, but now I understand that something will also be lost. It is up to us to watch its introduction with open eyes and to decide if it is worth the cost.
If you have the slightest curiosity about technology and its impact on culture, this book is for you. It is an incredibly important topic that punches above its weight in moderating the overwhelming discourse on how beneficial technology is to us, and provides a fundamental redefinition on what it means to make social progress.