- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: Vintage (1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679745408
- ISBN-13: 978-0679745402
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 127 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,570 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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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.
From Publishers Weekly
Mixing provocative insights and cliched criticisms, Postman defines the U.S. as a society in which technology is deified to a near-totalitarian degree.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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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.
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).
Some of the details seem a little far-fetched, and some of the arguments are weaker than I would like. But I think Postman nailed the main point: technology influences how people think, and we need to be aware of how that happens.
One quick warning: this isn't a book you should read quickly. It is, to borrow Bacon's words, a book that must be "digested" and not merely "tasted." Because we already know how technology has made our lives better, Postman sets out to show us how technology has made our lives worse. Thus, the book is purposefully imbalanced toward technophobism. A shallow or hasty reader may easily conclude that Postman is an oligarchical technophobe. Very little could be further from the truth. Postman is perfectly willing to acknowledge the vast benefits of technology. But the glorious advances of science are simply not his focus in this book. As a counterbalance to conventional thought, Postman points out how technology has harmed us. His point is not that technology is exclusively harmful; his point is that technology is not exclusively beneficial.