Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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As one who absolutely loves progress and scientific advancement, I found myself nodding my head again and again as he critiqued how our culture has mindlessly and carelessly embraced a scientific approach to life which ultimately has no purpose or meaning for its existence. Ultimately, I would argue that his critique is that science and technology move us so furiously in the realm of doing things that we are losing all concept of what it means to be human.
As much as his book is a critique of the underlying philosophies of this age, his is not a Christian approach. While I found his critiques valid, it saddened me to see his careless disregard for religion. As much as he lamented a cultural philosophy which embraces modernity and progress over and against the past, his rejection of religion bore all the traits of a dismissal based on the assumption, "We've developed (progressed) beyond that now...." In short, his uncritical dismissal of religion belies a blindspot in his own reasoning.
That said, I did enjoy, in his concluding chapter, the assertion of the need for classical elements in educational curriculum, both in literature and sciences and the arts. Included in this is an argument for the inclusion of an overview of religions and their histories. He asserts no religion over any other, and I'm curious exactly how he thinks such a thing should be taught - but I enjoyed the fact that he included the thought.
The book itself was written in an engaging manner, and I think it would be accessible to most readers of almost any education level. I would especially encourage any teachers or educators to read the book, for many of his critiques have fascinating and significant implications in the realm of education. I would also encourage pastors to read the book, because it offers a critique of modern culture which includes many specific areas which will help Pastors think well about culture and how it impacts people. Overall a great and insightful book, and a pretty easy read.
Although he overplays his hand a bit when discussing what he perceives as technology's totalitarian grip on society, more broadly his argument has merit, explanatory insight, and predictive value. (Overplayed for example that "Technopoly" completely robs us of history, when in fact the data boom it can be argued is creating a clearer record of it.) But this is a minor criticism, as overall his critiques and insights are spot-on ... it's almost as if he's viewing the world from a 4th dimension the rest of us can't see...or more superstitiously, he's clairvoyant. From this he raises important challenges to the Information Age ethos that insufficient information is the assumed source of major problems, for example from this passage:
"You need only ask yourself, What is the problem in the Middle East, or South Africa, or Northern Ireland? Is it lack of information that keeps these conflicts at fever pitch? Is it lack of information about how to grow food that keeps millions at starvation levels? Is it lack of information that brings soaring crime rates and physical decay to our cities? Is it lack of information that leads to high divorce rates and keeps the beds of mental institutions filled to overflowing?"
He provides a clear rebuke to the notion that social science is superior to literary tradition in understanding human behavior. It's ultimately about the age of old challenge of converting qualitative information into quantitative information, so it be made into a form to make generalized observations about large populations and bespoke ones about its individuals. Postman clearly reasons that abstraction and generalization that are made to seem irrefutable by attaching the qualifier "science" to "social" clearly do much more harm than good.
This book goes to dark places, and perhaps "dark" is the best word to describe its overall tone. At times I found myself reading it not because I wanted to, but because I had to. But with an inspiring final chapter on how to counter the negative consequences of what he calls "Technopoly", and uplifting commentary on mankind derived from the classic "Ascent of Man", it ends on a liberating note.
Again I'm not saying it's a perfect work either ... I wonder for example how Postman would view advances in AI nearly 30 years since publish date at being more "human-like". He seems to assume that people will always be more morally responsible than machines. But with all the strife in the world can we rely on human judgement and action, versus a machine that be programmed to behave within strict guidelines? He also makes his own presumed unchallengable "leap of faith" that life without meaning is essentially the worse kind. Something that a zen Buddhist could launch a serious challenge to, as in destructiveness of "gaining" notions.
My own criticisms aside, this remains one of the most fundamentally important works I've ever read. It's also very topical and an important reality-check with all the hype-selling these days in tech (some of it most certainly legit, some most certainly not).
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I don't think the religion of earlier centuries in Britain was good for us; yes it kept people in order, but that order was unfair at best and downright cruel for many (read Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre' for an account of cruelty in the name of religious teaching). What went wrong was not so much down to technology as the adoption of money, something that Postman fails to emphasise. Money, by it's one-dimensional nature that takes no account of damage, pollution, harm to others etc, gave individuals incentives to succeed at things that were not in the interests of society as a whole. Thus selling books became a way of making money, rather than a way of spreading good ideas. Advertising completed the job of creating our consumer society in which wealthy owners of production use others as both slaves to make things, and consumers to demand them - even if they are not really needed.
Postman was a writer, not a scientist, and as such I think he lacks the ability to truly understand science. When he points out that people today have no way of knowing whether a statement is true or not (with his examples of 'false news' about a miracle compound 'dyoxin') he is missing the fact that some of us are indeed able to separate fact from fiction, though it is by a method that is impossible for the majority, who are non-scientists, to understand as it relies on a mode of thinking that has I think to be inculcated from youth. To give my own example of this, take the fact that Toxoplasma Gondii, an organism that multiplies in the guts of cats, also exists in ten to fifty percent of humans in dormant form (depending which country they live in) and appears to change their behaviour. Bizarrely, people involved in serious road accidents are three times more likely to be carrying Toxoplasma. How can I know that this is the cause? Are risk-takers more likely to own cats, or to have bad hygiene around cats? Asking such questions is part of the method by which we arrive at facts, but there is something else. Toxoplasma has been genetically sequenced and found to contain a gene for an enzyme that makes a precursor to Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain connected with mood. But Toxoplasma has no nervous system, so why would it do that? We understand that it makes it in order to change the brain of rats in order to promote it's life cycle, by making them attracted to cats! Are humans suffering 'collateral damage' because they are mammals with similar nervous systems? Probably!! This is a long example, but it demonstrates that real thinkers do not simply 'know' or 'not know' but have the ability to find then fit together all the evidence to prove a case. This is what our society is really missing! Instead of teaching facts by rote in schools, we should be teaching real science, it's methods, and real independent thinking. We also need polymaths; scientists able to cross the artificial boundaries of disciplines; in this case of epidemiology, genetics, evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and psychology. Polymaths are in short supply because scientists need jobs that pay them a living, and are not free to follow where their thoughts take them as in Darwin's day. E O Wilson, famous scientist and evolutionary psychologist pressed for this cross-disciplinary approach in his book 'consilience' ePostman would not disagree with this, but he doesn't even begin to follow it through; instead he seems more of a Luddite wanting to return to former belief systems, despite his emphasis that some technology is beneficial.
A topic of urgent importance, much more urgent than Postman could ever have imagined, but a book that is rather out of date and lacking in ideas.