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Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to…

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)

by Neil Postman

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1,208126,620 (3.8)11
  1. 10
    The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman (proximity1)
  2. 00
    The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand (proximity1)
  3. 00
    The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich (proximity1)
    proximity1: The logical consequences of technopoly go hand in hand with an ever-expanding and ever-more-intrusive state surveillance aparatus which their proponents try to justify by assumptions about national security matters. These works, both so important, should be read together or serially for greater effect.… (more)
  4. 00
    The Waning of Humaneness by Konrad Lorenz (proximity1)
  5. 00
    In the Country of the Young by John W. Aldridge (proximity1)
  6. 00
    Exploring the Black Box: Technology, Economics, and History by Nathan Rosenberg (proximity1)
    proximity1: see also: http://www.librarything.com/catalog_bottom.php?tag=A+Reading+Course+in+%27Technology+%26+Society%27+-+main+text&view=proximity1
  7. 00
    You are not a gadget : a manifesto by Jaron Lanier (proximity1)
  8. 00
    Le destin technologique by Jean-Jacques Salomon (proximity1)
    proximity1: Le destin technologique , which presents interesting complementary reading to Technopoly, was published in the same year, 1992. Both are fascinating and both are by brilliant thinkers. See also, by J-J Salomon, in English, Mirages of development : science and technology for the third worlds … (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
We all recognize the changing world around us: our phones are computers, our computers are televisions, and our bookshelves are now condensed to a single Kindle reader. Books upon books have been written on the subject, but all of them seem to echo the question, "What next?". For this, Postman has a remedy; we should not be asking, "What next?", but "Why?".

In a rather brilliant and often very clever dissection of modern culture, Postman breaks down when technology became a tool to be used by humans and turned into the master. He outlines three major time periods in culture: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. The first uses tools as a means to carry out an overarching ideology (for instance, supposing the printing press will be a boon to Catholicism). The technocracies see technology as a means to improve upon the human condition. Finally, technopolies arise, wherein the former ideology is destroyed, and technology itself becomes both the new guiding ideology and the means.

Postman, without becoming alarmist or shaking his walking stick at televisions/radios/etc., manages to explain why this is not a good thing, and what the ramifications of such a technopoly are. We have already seen them ourselves, in the presence of bureaucracies that seem uncaring and soulless to those who are crushed beneath it.

The book was written in 1992, which sometimes dates it - there is no reference to the Internet and its wider implications, for instance - but other than that, it seems oddly prescient.

He feels obliged at the end to offer a solution, which is unfortunately almost necessary to those who choose a lack of a solution as a valid defense for ignoring the criticism itself, and though it was certainly stirring and inspirational, and no doubt would work, it is patently obvious that as higher-education institutions themselves are wrapped up in the new technopoly and cease to see students anymore, but instead, consumers, the practical implication is nigh impossible; colleges want their money.

Still, he proposes that there is no way to stop it, but we can show an awareness and practice "technological modesty" - recognizing that technology, in and itself, is not always progress, and that even technology used for good purposes can lead to social debits and unintended consequences. ( )
  kittyjay | Apr 23, 2015 |
Read at work over lunch breaks.
I was going to write that this book is absolutely terrible, that its use should be confined to classes on the use of polemic and advanced straw-man attacks. Nearly every paragraph contains something deeply flawed, whether arguing from specious analogy, exaggerated mischaracterizations, citing an authority rather than proving or demonstrating his point, assuming points he can't make, and on on on on on. If you kept the paragraphs that didn't commit errors of logic or fallacies of argument, there may only be a few pages remaining. And this is sad, as there are several good ideas buried underneath all this drek. It's an elitist (remember when the only people talking and doing things were the 10%?), conservative (Burkean-type, but also Go Nancy Reagan!), pro-American (isn't it just wonderful that the Chinese in Tiananmen Square made a replica Statue of Liberty? America is the best, when functioning "properly") rant for a lost age that only existed for a few, if at all. He slams our attitude to science as being religious, then urges on a return to a more reverent religious time (this is a common argument, and it never makes any sense). And let's just say that Technopoly is a shorthand for everything Postman doesn't like about modern society. Technical, bureaucratic, computerized, saturated with simple entertainments and advertising, short sighted with no regard for history. The good parts lurk amongst this overstated and poorly stitched together mix.

Bah. I mean, I was going to write a lot more, pages more, and was going to attempt to be coherent. But instead this is all that is going to come out.

Except! The last chapter. Oh, that last chapter. It is, for the most part, incredibly good. He proposes some solutions to the problems of Technopoly, and I largely agree. It must begin with education, as it is one of the few technologies we have (note: I'm using Postman's terminology; I'm profoundly uncomfortable calling our educational apparatus a technology) that people will allow to be modified, and it directly addresses people's attitudes and behaviours. His proposal is actually modest, and he admits that it is only a beginning. He suggests that all of our classes be taught with a strong historical component, in essence demystifying the content, which allows the student a chance to critically engage the material. He wants Semantics taught in language classes, so that we may come to understand how words come to have meaning, how they relate to the world and to the senses we want to give them. A history of Science will show students that Science is more than just facts and weird equations, that it is a profound venture into understanding how the world works and our place in it, and that the people involved in creating it were all too human. Where does this leave History classes? History is to change from lists of facts of names and dates, an incomprehensible schmozzle if ever there was one, to teaching how history is created, why it is written the way it is, and the uses to which it has been put to use. No history is neutral, all have their inherent bias. This helps center a student in a world of deeper cultural influences, to tell a richer and more involved story of their origins and how they fit in to the present, and how to better grasp the stories of those who come from different cultural backgrounds. Of interest, as he is a conservative, he believes that when this is done properly, it will avoid the worst excesses of cultural relativism.

So, I applaud his last chapter. Unfortunately, it can't really redeem the mess that is the rest of the book.
2 stars oc ( )
  starcat | Aug 11, 2014 |
It points out a problem. It offers a reasonable solution. Unlikely, but reasonable. I like it. ( )
  remikit | Aug 22, 2010 |
Easily one of the most important works of our time and simply indispensible for understanding the interconnections between social and technological developments.

The thinking-person's guide to the contemporary world of industrial society, Technopoly offers its readers indispensible keys to understanding what is happening all around them as well as invaluable insights into how to recognize and interpret the meaning and importance of social and technological developements in the years to come.

For every social issue of our times, Postman's analyses of the technological aspects will startle the reader with their revealing light on the often-missed core of the matter.

Those who try to make sense of the world today without the insights of this essential work resemble people who wander aimlessly through a mine-field. ( )
1 vote proximity1 | Mar 20, 2010 |
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Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science. Paul Goodman, New Reformation
For Faye and Manny
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You will find in Plato's Phaedrus a story about Thamus, the king of a great city in Upper Egypt.
(1) (a)
This book attempts to describe when, how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy. (Introduction, p. xii)

But we may learn from Thamus the following: once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is--that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open. (p. 7)

For one thing, in cultures that have a democratic ethos, relatively weak traditions, and a high receptivity to new technologies, everyone is inclined to be enthusiastic about technological change, believing that its benefits will eventually spread evenly among the entire population. Especially in the United States, where the lust for what is new has no bounds, do we find this childlike conviction most widely held. (p. 11)

When Galileo said that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he did not mean to include human feeling or accomplishment or insight. But most of us are now inclined to make these inclusions. Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge. (p. 13)

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. (p. 18)

...Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. (p. 18)

...What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if the television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question : In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God? And if the politician cannot think beyond the next election, then we must wonder about what new media do to the idea of political organization and to the conception of citizenship.

To help us do this, we have the judgment of Thamus, who, in the way of legends, teaches us what Harold Innis, in his way, tried to. New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. As Thamus spoke to Innis across the centuries, it is essential that we listen to their conversation, join it, revitalize it. For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is--in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly. (p. 19-20)

... And so two opposing world-views--the technological and the traditional--coexisted in uneasy tension. ...

...With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is a totalitarian technocracy. (p. 48)

To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative. To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling. There is even an alternative to the painful riddle of death, as Freud called it. The riddle may be postponed through longer life, and then perhaps solved altogether by cryogenics. At least, no one can easily think of a reason why not. (p. 54)

...However, there is still another possibility, related to Shaw's point but off at right-angles to it. It is, in any case, more relevant to understanding the sustaining power of Technopoly. I mean that the world we live in is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact, whether actual or imagined, that will surprise us for very long since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world that would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We believe because there is no reason not to believe. And I assume the reader does not need the evidence of my comic excursion into the suburbs of social science to recognize this. Abetted by a form of education that in itself has been emptied of any coherent world-view, Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief. (p. 58)

...Indeed, one way of defining a Technopoly is to say that its information immune system is inoperable. Technopoly is a form of cultural AIDS, which I use as an acronym for Anti-Information Deficiency Syndrome. This is why it is possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin your utterance with the words "A study has shown..." or "Scientists now tell us that..." More important, it is why in a Technopoly, there can be no transcendant sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves. (p. 63)

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved. They also believe that information is an unmixed blessing, which through its continued and uncontrolled production and dissemination offers increased freedom, creativity, and peace of mind. The fact that information does none of these things--but quite the opposite--seems to change few opinions, for such unwavering beliefs are an inevitable part of the structure of Technopoly. In particular, Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down. (p. 71)

See also, Citation # 2 at The Waning of Humaneness ( http://www.librarything.com/work/9866... )

and Citations # 6 & 13 at In the Country of the Young, ( http://www.librarything.com/work/2739... )

It is an open question whether or not "liberal democracy" in its present form can provide a thought-world of sufficient moral substance to sustain meaningful lives. This is precisely the question that Vaclav Havel, the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia, posed in an address to the U.S. Congress. "We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of our actions--if they are to be moral--is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success." What Havel is saying is that it is not enough for his nation to liberate itself from one flawed theory; it is necessary to find another, and he worries that Technopoly provides no answer. To say it in still another way: Francis Fukuyama is wrong. There is another ideological conflict to be fought--between "liberal democracy" as conceived in the eighteenth century, with all its transcendent moral underpinnings, and Technopoly, a twentieth-century thought-world that functions not only without a transcendent narrative to provide moral underpinnings but also without strong social institutions to control the flood of information produced by technology. Because that flood has laid waste the theories on which schools, families, political parties, religion, (and) nationhood itself are based, American Technopoly must rely, to an obsessive exent, on technical methods to control the flow of information. Three such means merit special attention. (p. 81 & 82)
Bureaucracy now not only solves problems but creates them. More important, it defines what our problems are--and they are always, in the bureaucratic view, problems of efficiency. As (C.S.) Lewis suggests, this makes bureaucracies exceedingly dangerous, because, though they were originally designed to process only technical information, they now are commonly employed to address problems of a moral, social and political nature. ... Technopoly's bureaucracy has broken loose from such restrictions and now claims sovereignty over all of society's affairs. (p. 86)
A piece of work that is greatly admired as social science, at least from a technical if not an ethical point of view, is the set of experiments (so called) supervised by Stanley Milgram, the account of which was published under the title Obedience to Authority. ... Milgram drew the following conclusion from his research: In the face of what they construe to be legitimate authority, most people will do what they are told. Or...the social context in which people find themselves will be a controlling factor in how they behave.

... His (i.e. Freud's) work is exemplary--indeed, monumental--but scarcely anyone believes today that Freud was doing science, any more than educated people believe that Marx was doing science, or Max Weber or Lewis Mumford or Bruno Bettelheim or Carl Jung or Margaret Mead or Arnold Toynbee. What these people were doing--and Stanley Milgram was doing--is documenting the behavior and feelings of people as they confront problems posed by their culture. Their work is a form of storytelling. Science itself is, of course, a form of storytelling too, but its assumptions and procedures are so different from those of social research that it is extremely misleading to give the same name to each. In fact, the stories of social researchers are much closer in structure and purpose to what is called imaginative literature; that is to say, both a social researcher and a novelist give unique interpretations to a set of human events and support their interpretations with examples in various forms. Their interpretations cannot be proved or disproved but will draw their appeal from the power of their language, the depth of their explanations, the relevance of their examples, and the credibility of their themes. And all of this has, in both cases, an identifiable moral purpose. The words “true” and “false” do not apply here in the sense that they are used in mathematics or science. For there is nothing universally and irrevocably true or false about these interpretations. There are no critical tests to confirm or falsify them. There are no natural laws from which they are derived. They are bound by time, by situation, and above all by the cultural prejudices of the researcher or writer. ( p. 151, 153 & 154)
(5) )
By scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. Two of the three have just been cited. The first and indispensible idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F.A. Hayek, 'has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.'
The second idea is, as also noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means—mostly ‘invisible technologies’ supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behaviour and set it on the proper course.
The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.
I wish here to show how these ideas spiral into each other, and how they give energy and form to Technopoly. (p. 147)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679745408, Paperback)

Neil Postman is one of the most level-headed analysts of education, media, and technology, and in this book he spells out the increasing dependence upon technology, numerical quantification, and misappropriation of "Scientism" to all human affairs. No simple technophobe, Postman argues insightfully and writes with a stylistic flair, profound sense of humor, and love of language increasingly rare in our hastily scribbled e-mail-saturated world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:33 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A social critic argues that the United States has become a "technopoly"--a system that sacrifices social institutions for self-perpetuating technological advancement--and suggests ways to use technical skills to enhance our democracy.

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