on September 4, 2002
I love technology. I tell you this, even though it must be obvious to you considering where these words are appearing. I love technology, but I'm not blind to its problems. To those who say technology has no faults, I ask you when was the last time your computer crashed or whatever happened to that grand notion of a "paperless office"? Technology is something between Pandora's box and Prometheus' gift; I would not want to live without it because I've read history, but I can also imagine an even better world.
Neil Postman may or may not love technology, but he certainly knows its failings. Postman is the author of several books on the interplay between American culture and technology, and his most recent, Technopoly, is in some ways a culmination of his previous efforts. Postman is an educator who is distressed by the state of American education. Instead of simply decrying the fact that schools are changing and moaning for a return to the "good ol' days," Postman took the time to understand the nature of the beast, dissect it, and present his conservation strategy. As he states, his idea of getting "back to the basics" is not quite the same as that typically bandied about by politicians and policy makers.
First, the argument. Postman describes what he calls the three stages of how a culture deals with technology: 1) tool-using, 2) technocracy, 3) technopoly. In a tool-using culture, technical improvements are limited to the uses at hand. This differs from the technocracy, where the tools "play a central role in the thought world of the culture." In the technopoly, tools become the culture. Astute readers may sense a possible linkage here with Alvin Toffler's three waves of culture detailed in The Third Wave. Toffler views each wave as having a trough and crest, with monumental social impact happening as each wave breaks upon the shore of human culture. Toffler says the reason for the breakdown in our traditional structures today is that we are in the break between the second and third wave. Toffler predicts a time of stability in the future, in which this new wave of culture and technology will have enhanced all of our lives. Postman and Toffler are not exactly foes in their views of the waves of culture, but differ on how we are to approach this change. Toffler implies that it will sort itself out -- a type of laissez-faire view of societal change that makes it easier to understand Toffler's ties to Newt Gingrich. Postman feels we must address the change, or it will destroy us.
To that end, Postman writes a history of the growth of technology in American society. His history centers on the impact of technology on the medical profession -- how it saw the progression of each technological stage to the detriment of both doctors and patients. As damning as this evaluation is, he follows it with an even better one from our standpoint: the impact of computers on American culture. As I said before, I love technology, and computer technology most of all, but it was impossible not to follow Postman's clear and reasoned analysis of the computer's impact on society.
Had Postman ended here, having formulated his theory and verified it with examples, the book would have been simply interesting, but Postman follows it with a suggested course of action. It is unsurprising that, as an educator, his solutions center on this area of society, but he states that his suggestions could never be implemented without being supported in the political and legal arenas, to name two. Postman proposes a goal for American education -- no longer, he says, can we simply train people for employment (the current state of education), but we must instill in people a purpose. His proposed goal is the betterment of humanity. To achieve this goal, he suggests that we get back to the basics in our schools, but by this he means the study of the underlying assumptions of our culture rather than just basic skills. That is, he posits a curriculum that includes the history of every subject as part of that subject, including the history (or ideology) of history itself. Only by understanding how we came to be in the place we stand now, will we be able to move forward.
Only a few days before I finished reading Technopoly, Microsoft and MCI announced an initiative to get every public school a presence on the Internet. While it is a generous offer, we should examine the purpose of it all. How exactly will this aid our educational goals? I love technology and I'm bullish on the prospect of the interactive properties of the Internet to help bring about a new form of thinking, critical Americans (especially as opposed to the last mass media technology that came about, television), but that does not mean that the implementation of the technology does not need to be evaluated. And this, in a nutshell, is what Postman is about. I've probably done a major disservice to Postman in summarizing so much of his treatise here, but I hope that it has been sufficiently intriguing that it actually got you to thinking. I suggest as a follow-up that you try the text itself or some of the works listed in the bibliography. It is what I'll be doing.
on August 12, 2000
I heard Neil Postman on a radio interview for this book, several years before I read "Amusing Ourselves to Death," which I consider a better book. I went back and read Technopoly, because it is (for better or for worse) in many respects a classic in the field. After reading "Disappearance" and "Objections," I've found that Postman does a good job maintaining a basic premise or thesis throughout all of his books.
In technopoly, Postman offers an interesting perspective on those who would "gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved," known as technophiles, and those who are on the other end of the spectrum, I'll call them technocritics. This is a book that clearly defines the potential problems that we may incur if we blindly allow technology to answer society's most pressing questions.
As a quantitative researcher, who recognizes that a qualitative approach is sometimes necessary to tease out the richness of data (perhaps later to be empirically tested), I really enjoyed Postman's perspectives in the chapter titled "Scientism." In this chapter, and throughout the whole book, Postman included wonderful little vignettes: "Freud once sent a copy of one of his books to Einstein, asking for his evaluation of it. Einstein replied that he thought the book was exemplary but was not qualified to judge its scientific merit."
I see there are several other reviews, and so as not to make mine too long, let me end with this summation: Postman is a good writer and he's got lots of interesting threads of reasoning in this book. Not all of his arguments have a tremendous amount of backing, but you will gain valuable persepectives that you may not have thought of/about previously. From that standpoint, and the fact that his paperbacks aren't extremely expensive, I recommend adding it to your shopping basket.
There is much to learn from this important book. Over the last two hundred years, both science & technology have rapidly & irrevocably changed the face of the earth. In the postindustrial world, we've banished infectious diseases from our midst (at least temporarily), have instituted public health & sanitation measures, and have made creature comfort a part of everyman's lifestyle. Yet, there is profound and widespread concern regarding exactly where technological innovation is taking us, what this mysterious journey will cost us in terms of a sustainable and palatable ecosystem, and exactly who (if anyone) is driving this huge and anonymous innovative juggernaut. This book deals provocatively with this issue; i.e. the promulgation of a culture in which science and technology have come to assume the pivotal role in our society.
Sociologist Max Weber warned almost 100 years ago of an alarming tendency in western civilization to displace our tradition-based religious cultural ethos with a dangerously superficial "faux" rationality in which all decisions and all measures would come to be made more and more exclusively by scientific and logical means. Yet science by its very nature cannot answer questions dealing with values, advising us as to what is right, or good, or best. It can only speak to us in terms of effective and efficient means to achieve such cultural values and social ends. It is this tension between a human-oriented cultural ethos, on the one hand, and scientific progress through technological innovation not so oriented on the other that is Mr. Postman's real subject.
Mr. Postman understands that science and technology are both our friends and our antagonists, and as our amigo the Unabomber has pointed out, what technical innovation introduces as "voluntary and optional" soon becomes "compulsory and obligatory", as did the introduction of automobiles and traffic regulation. In this fashion, by flooding our social, economic, and political environment with items and objects that drive the nature of society as much as enhance it (can anyone now doubt that the introduction of personal computers poses such a double-bind?), we are radically changing the nature of our society and its culture without benefit of any guiding values, precepts, or notions as to what is best for our people and our community other than to allow frenzied competition between technological rivals to see who can unlease the latest/neatest technological innovation to make our lives easier or entertain us more cleverly. Our direction in terms of progress seems to be random, at best, and Postman argues most persuasively that there are hidden dangers to our freedoms, our prosperity, and even our awareness that result from this surrender to the indifferent impulses of technological innovation. We best recognize this indifference and the dangers it poses for a free and open society.
As author Sales Kirkpatrick notes in his wonderful book "Rebels Against the Future", "technology is never neutral"; it carries out its exclusively rational and logical intent to its conclusion. Yet often the fact that this conclusion is not necessarily in the public interest or consistent with the long-term goals and aspirations of our culture seems somehow irrelevant. Yet it is anything but irrelevant; it is central to the question as to how critically important decisions regarding our future and well-being are to be made, and on what basis. Will we have a society in which such decisions are made through open debate in a public forum, or one in which the decisions are made for us, based on market projections, what can be sold and distributed, researched based on its sales potential in anonymous test tubes and clinical labs, where the latest in scientific certainty is readied for pandemic public introduction? Time is growing short and we must soon decide. This is a fascinating, provocative, and important book. Read it!
on June 16, 2000
This is one of those books that make you think the only reason it isn't permanently on the New York Times Bestseller List (or the top 100 of the Amazon.com list) is because the general public is either too afraid to read it after seeing the subtitle, or people in power have been doing everything they can to render it unattractive. With every new innovation and social argument today, from birth control and feminism to the media and privacy, we all find ourselves suspiciously willing to turn over every intellectual rock and make hamburger out of every sacred cow in the search for enemies, heroes, reasons and justifications for our beliefs and actions. Yet with fear and trembling we all ignore this one- which Neil Postman makes all too clear may be the only one we should be discussing: the surrendering of all of our true sense of freedom, independence, responsibility and community to the wrathful, jealous god of Technology. In the opening to the book he quotes a philosopher who sums up his entire point with an idea that puts our entire cultural period into a disturbing perspective: regardless of its basis in scientific innovation and theory, technology "is a branch of moral philosophy, not science." The mere thought that our entire world and the daily transformations taking place in it may be in the wrong hands- at our request- and that THAT is the explanation for the incredible degree of unquestioned, unexamined change, is enough to make you afraid of your computer. And remember, this book was published years before Dolly the cloned sheep came to town, or we were anywhere near as close to charting the entire human genome. (Like the relationship of Einstein's theories to the Manhattan Project, with that alone we have no idea what world we are in store for or what war in the twenty-first century will be like; yet we go blindly onward, giving our scientific leaders and CEOs of industry carte blanche, without questioning if we have a choice.) Postman simply makes it clear that the people who are taking us where we are headed don't really know what they're doing anymore than we do in terms of the implications for our culture- or any culture's- future, and really don't care. Because they have sold their souls to the idea of progress and markets- falling in line with the dictates of the cult of technology. Many countries around the world see Globalization as little more than the Americanization of the world, like Rome around the time of Christ. Postman's TECHNOPOLY makes it clear that that force may have malevolent implications because it could actually be built upon the transformation of American democracy and culture into that of technological fascism. With every chapter, some almost hilarious in the little absudities we live by made clear, some scary in their implications and explanations of the seemingly unrelated ills of our world, Neil Postman creates one of the greatest and most important diagnoses of the Achilles heel of modern Western Society ever written. TECHNOPOLY is prophetic, and like every prophet, what he has to say will only be apocalyptic to our world if we choose to ignore it.
on April 26, 2000
For two semesters, I've taught out of *Technopoly*, and I sympathize with many of the points in it. Scientism bothers me, and I'm always going on about the Popperian criterion, that a scientific proposition must be falsifiable. So I was disappointed to see Postman fall prey to the same fallacies he criticizes. For example, he repeats the tired old error that Einstein proved "everything is relative" and so morals don't matter-- a classic example of the equivocal fallacy, as neither of Einstein's theories of relativity had anything to say about moral relativism. Postman also misrepresents BF Skinner's vision of humanity: "The automaton to be redeemed by a benign technology." Anyone who bothers to read Skinner will find that he regards human beings as feeling, thinking, flesh-and-blood creatures. More broadly, Postman proceeds on the explicit assumption that science and religion are irreconcilably at odds, when in fact, science has nothing whatever to say about religious propositions. It is only when religious authorities presume to make testable claims about the natural world that science might come to bear. To think otherwise is to give science powers that it doesn't have-- in a word, it's scientism. Postman's nostalgia for an age of religion-induced "certainty" left me totally cold. Certainty about what is most uncertain? No, thank you. That is the kind of comforting "certainty" that has given us evils ranging from quack medicine to ethnic cleansing. Most disturbingly of all, Postman indulges in the very "agentic shift" that he rightly criticizes, saying essentially that a technology will do what it is designed to do. Who has designed it? To do what, and to whom? Such questions are swallowed up in the passive voice and Postman's anthropomorphization of technology. Amid all the talk of conquest and oppression, there is a conspicuous absence of conquerors and oppressors, a notable omission in what purports to be a historical overview of technology. I more or less agree with his final point, that elementary and secondary education should emphasize fundamental, classical disciplines like logic. Such training might result in fewer books like *Technopoly*, or at least equip more readers to spot the obvious errors.
on March 28, 2000
The best thing to understand about this book is that Postman doesn't hate "Technology" or condemn it. He isn't a Luddite or anything. He shows that "Technology" is very useful in solving problems while it often times creates other problems. I am a student majoring in Information Technology while concentrating in Database Design and Implementation. I love technology and it is definitely what I want to do. But, books like Postman's keeps you focused on what the real purpose of technology is. Postman touches on the fact that we are drowning in our own information. In history there has always been outlets for information. Knowledge was sacred and only passed on through certain avenues. This involved churches, schools, apprenticeships, etc. Now with the revolution of a Global Community, the transfer of data is instantaneous and removed from its context. This is a very good book. Postman writes with a fluid intellectual tone. I have just ordered another one of his books "The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School". I feel that with the change in how are world is viewed and how we view ourselves within that context, it is important to discuss something such as education because it will surely be drastically affected by this change.
on February 20, 2013
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.
on April 3, 2002
I first picked this book up in high school more than 10 years ago. More recently, as a Ph.D. candidate in engineering, I gave it another read. From both perspectives, a teenager with some grade-school science courses and a tech-saavy graduate student, I have thoroughly enjoyed this book.
This is a book about how technology affects the way a society interprets and thinks about all aspects of life and culture. Postman starts by looking at the past and very low tech (writing, for instance) and ends up examining the tech of the present. This book was first published in the 80s with a reprint in 1993, so some of Post's observations about computers and TV are very dated. I would love to see a 2nd edition to this book to address the technology of today and it's accessibility.
Despite the dated comments on present tech (which in the present age is understandibly difficult to keep up with) the overall thesis is highly relevant and this book should be read by all, science and tech enthusiast or no. It will definitely make you think about things you have previously taken for granted. The next time you use any technology, from a pen to a pda to a dvd player, you will ask yourself how this skews your world view.
on July 25, 2001
Neil Postman, who was the head of the New York University Department of Communication at the time Technopoly was written, had been teaching for 30 years. During that time, he wrote "Amusing Ourselves to Death" which continues with H. Marshal McLuhan's theme of "the median is the message. But, unlike McLuhan, who embraced the unfolding potential of emerging technologies, Postman perceives a darker future. "Technopoly" follows "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and further explores Postman's misgivings of a world in which technology seems to be holding sway over man's intellect. "...(T)he uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain moral processes and social relations that make human life worth living." Civilization, according to Postman, could be divided into tool using (pre - 17th century), technocracies (the Industrial Revolution), and technopolies (the current state of the United States, with Western Europe, following close behind). In the tool using era, tools were designed to subdue nature for the benefit of man. In the era of technocracy, tools were "not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture." Here, we think of print. In technopolies, the focus is on efficiency in all forms of thought and labor to the extent that human judgment by itself regarded as untrustworthy and in need of automated supplementation. In developing that theme, Postman makes the following points: - We live in a society in which all other forms of our culture tend to be subordinated to technology. - we are becoming less human with a gradual loss of contact with the human elements in our culture. - technology seems to be taking more and more control of our lives with our focus shifting from effectiveness to efficiency. - we are beginning to place a greater faith in concrete numbers rather than the subjective, and we are beginning to discount educated intuition in favor of the dictates of mathematical models. - previous ages were noted for the development of technology, or tools, that were user friendly; plows, the hand press, hand tools, and the stirrup. These tools remained subordinate to the interests of man and served mans interests. - the synergism of automation, systems management, scientific methods, systems analysis, and programs of zero- defects have displaced calculated risk taking, innovative exploration, and a human reliance on "the touch and feel" of exploratory program building. - modern man seems to have exchanged critical thinking for a passionate embrace of trivia. In discussing the ecology of information, Postman contends that as society experiences information overload from a wide variety of sources (television, radio, press, movies, computers, etc) and that the traditional values control systems (family, church, school) cannot function in their traditional roles. According to Postman, since families, for example, are no longer able to provide adequate social guidance in light of all the technological pressure, they must turn to new, technologically enhanced control mechanisms: expert services, IQ tests, SAT scores, to supplement judgment. As we move deeper into the age of the computer, Postman sees the computer as usurping initiative and responsibility while taking the element of chance and surprise out of research that has frequently produce unanticipated breakthroughs in other areas. Postman's prescription is a return to healthy individual and collective skepticism and to object and question rather than submit. It seems that to Postman, it's important to get an answer the question "why?" before entertaining the question "Why Not?" Postman urges that individuals become resistance fighters by following his ten commandments. If there is a potential for a technological suffocation of our values, the remedy may rest in a reemphasis of the humanities, religion and the philosophy of technology. There is a difference between McLuhan and Postman's vision of the future and the role technology plays. To McLuhan, future technologies cradle man's potential to develop, use and maintain the full range of his potential. To Postman, future technologies are poised to suffocate that spark within the human soul that makes man unique within the universe. Postman harkens to a Jeffersonian belief in man that reposes great trust in the judgment of an educated people. However, Postman does not seem that have the same trust that McLuhan did: that man ultimately will tame new technologies to serve his vision of the future.
In a larger sense, though, Postman's ten prescriptions demonstrates his belief that man can overcome the threat posed by technology run amok. Postman, more so than McLuhan, focuses on the negative aspect of technology and has more doubts about man's ability to mold these wonders of science into his vision of tomorrow.
on December 1, 2004
I read this book years ago, but its insights continually help me understand the changes taking place around us. Postman's essential point is that technological change-and he's talking about all such change, from the Stone Age on-inevitably brings about changes in culture. These changes are both profound and subtle, so Postman offers a wealth of examples from different eras. The bigger the technological change, the more dramatic the cultural shift is. He's not, repeat not, against technological development per se. He simply asks that you look at it and try to see the changes as they happen in the hope of mitigating the inevitable downsides. New technologies involve what he called "Faustian bargains"-they give you something, but they also take something away. I have to say that I was very taken aback by the number of people here who really didn't seem to address or, frankly, understand, the main point of this fine and valuable book.