Monthly Archives: December 2014
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Being a social critic must be a lonely job. No one wants to hear what he says, I imagine, besides those already disillusioned with the system. For those though who have a vague sense that something somewhere has gone wrong but lack the words to articular exactly what, the social critic serves an essential function. He helps diagnose the problem. Neil Postman did this in his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I read years ago, when he talked about the way that television has shaped public dialogue. One of the main themes in that book is that the medium is never neutral– it shapes the message and the type of dialogue that can be conducted. Whereas print allows a certain level of dialogue and reflection, the medium of television news– depending as it does on sensationalism and catering to the limited attention span of viewers, upon which their marketing model is sustained– cannot. In this book, Technopoly, Postman takes his idea of the impossibility of a neutral medium deeper with his critique of the assumptions that underlie our technological world.
Postman believes that the United States has become the world’s first “Technopoly.” In the first few chapters of the work, which was written in the 1990s, he sets out what this means with an overview of the history of technology that, though problematic in some respects, draws widely on many well-known historians of technology. (Indeed, the primary reason I read this book was because I wanted to get a sense for whether it would work for a history of technology unit in a history of science course I’ll be teaching in the spring, and these chapters indeed fit the bill for a general student reader.) Postman wants to chart the transition from societies in which tools are used by humans (a tool-using society) to a society in which those tools bring about radical social changes (what Postman calls a technocracy) and ultimately to the society we have today, one in which we no longer shape tools for ourselves but in which we shape ourselves for our tools (a Technopoly).
There are a lot of generalizations at play here, as one would expect in a three-chapter survey of the history of technology. Postman shows how the technology of writing transformed society and created an abundance of information that required institutions to manage. Schools and universities, for instance, arose in large part to help sort, organize, evaluate, and manage the new information created by the technology of printing. In the past century, Postman argues, technologies increasing the amount and immediacy of information– the telegraph, telephone, television, and finally computer– have proliferated much faster than the capacity of the institutions that exist to manage that information. The result in today’s Technopoly is a flood of information that exists without content, context, or relevancy; the assumption that information is good and valuable for its own sake; and the belief that society’s ills arise from a lack of information that only more information-generating technology can solve. One of the main threads in Postman’s argument is against these last two flawed (but overwhelmingly accepted) assumptions in today’s society.
Another complaint of Postman’s regarding technology’s role in society is the way humans become subordinate to technology. Postman’s claim is not simply that technology creates problems in today’s world; it’s deeper and more subtle than that. Postman wants to show the unperceived and unquestioned ways technology shapes thought. Against those who believe technological progress is always desired and inevitable, Postman argues technology is not value-neutral. It carries with it a host of assumptions that fundamentally change the way humans interact with each other and their environment and conceive of the natural and social world.
He provides specific examples from the field of medical and computer technology. The primary problem, he says, is the familiar adage that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Machines depend for their functioning upon the reduction of things to uniformity, automated processes, and problems of efficiency. The usurpation of culture by technology, Postman argues, takes place when this becomes the lens through which all human interactions are viewed. Machines predispose us to see social interactions in these reductionist, efficiency-driven terms. In these cases, Postman says, we are no longer simply using our machines; they are shaping the way that we view the world.
Postman takes this argument further by discussing “invisible” technologies– that is, technologies we use every day but that we don’t normally think of as technologies. His big examples here are the practices of standardized testing, questionnaires, polling, and the tools of social scientists– basically the perceived ability to objectively quantify specific traits. A standardized test is a technology, and again it’s a technology that has shaped the way we perceive the world. It allows us to believe that nebulous traits like empathy, beauty, and intelligence can be reduced to a number, and it causes us to reify things like “intelligence” that don’t really exist. Intelligence, empathy, beauty– they’re not things; they’re complex qualities that exists in different ways in different people in different circumstances.
The results of all this, Postman says, is that our culture places an inordinate faith in applying the methods of natural science– quantification, empirical observation, testing– to places where they never belonged in the first place, the realm of human interaction and society. Postman has a long screed against social scientists, who he believes misuse the tools of scientific practice and have contributed nothing to the actual understanding of the human mind or human interactions. I find this generalization to be a bit dangerous, especially the division he makes between studying the processes of nature (allowable via the scientific method) and human practices (not allowable, because humans are too complex). What would Postman make of the burgeoning field of neuroscience, for instance, which combines aspects of the social sciences with biology and psychology? The divisions here are, I think, more tenuous than Postman allows.
As a critique of a society that unquestioningly embraces technology and all the reductionist assumptions it entails, this book– published over twenty years ago– still seems incredibly relevant. No technology is value-neutral– for good or ill, using it has radical effects on human relationships (and this is where one can’t help but wonder what Postman would make of the internet today and the efflorescence of social media). Deeper than that though, Postman believes technology shapes the way we view the world. Computers, for instance, don’t simply process data for us; they give us an entirely new language. They cause us to re-conceptualize our problems in mechanistic terms, even when this is inappropriate. In some cases we start treating computers like people, and in many cases we start treating people like computers.
His conclusion– the “what can we do about it”– chapter of the book warms the heart of a historian of science. Postman says that the only place the problems of Technolopy can be address are in the schools (which are themselves a form of technology). The key, Postman claims, to helping people see the problematic assumptions of Technopoly is teaching the history of every discipline, especially the history and philosophy of science. It’s only by seeing the way in which what we know– or think we know– has changed over time that we can teach students to see and question the assumptions that today’s culture rests upon. As much as I agree with the call to historicizing knowledge (and Postman is right– this is the only way for knowledge to become more than a consumer product), the grand narrative of human progress that Postman thinks teaching should be structured around smacks of the very technological determinism that he is trying to avoid.
Most of society focuses on what we gain with technology; Postman wants to make us consider what we lose, but more than that he wants to warn against the standards of Technopoly– efficiency, information, standardization, immediacy– becoming the standards of culture. This is a warning that is just as poignant now, if not more so, than it was when the book was first written.
The Land of the His-lonyups
My daughter writes stories. They’re terrifying and delightful. She’s six. Her latest is a fully illustrated book, made up of several sheets of white scrap paper bound together along the righthand margin with eight haphazard staples.
“What can I do?” she had asked after we arrived home from a day in Chicago. I was tired and wanted a break from kids.
“Anything you want,” I said. “Read a book, draw a picture, play with–”
“No,” she interrupted. “What can I do for you?”
“Oh.” I paused. “You could write me a story and illustrate–”
She didn’t even let me finish. Before I was done speaking, she was at the table with the paper and the pencils, bent over her work.
Later, she brought me the finished product. “It’s pronounced ‘His-lon-ee-ups,’” she explained.
“What are his-lonyups?”
“I made them up.”
I’ve recreated the text of the work below, edited for spelling. It’s grim, folks. The girl is a miniature Edward Gorey.
The Land of the His-Lonyups
The cover has a image of a skull and a backward question mark. From the side of the skull protrudes the hilt of a sword, along with what might be an effluence of blood or brain matter.
Long ago in a far away land, there was a man who was named Peter.
She introduces the story’s main character. In his image he is depicted as a young, smiling man with spiky hair. He holds what might be a milkshake in his left hand and wears a backpack. Our hero is obviously young, hopeful, and prepared to travel.
He went to an island on a boat.
There are hints here of Where the Wild Things Are, especially in this image, which shows Peter in his small boat on the waves. The island he approaches holds trees– flame-like protuberances on slender sticks. But what is this hidden among them? Do the trees bear fruit, or is that something more sinister?
The island was creepy. He heard a noise. SRESS! [sic] went the noise.
She’s effectively building atmosphere as well as intrigue. What sort of island is this creepy island? What kind of animal would make a noise like “Sress!” Is it a shriek? Or a hiss? Or some unholy combination of the two? The image here gives us no clues. It simply shows Peter, now as a stick-figure, approaching a weirdly-shaped tree. In a thought bubble over his head hangs the ominous backward question mark from the cover.
Then he saw a black face stick out of the trees!
This image shows Peter– his face now bearing an expression of horror and surprise– at the base of the strange tree. Extending downward from one of the branches, hanging upside-down like a bat, is the face of what I can only assume to be a his-lonyup. Twin fangs extend upward from a grinning mouth. Its eyes are thin and slanted; its ears sharp and pointed.
It was a his-lonyup. The his-lonyup kild [sic] him . . .
Our worst fears have been confirmed. Peter, the plucky protagonist, lies prone, his dotted eyes replaced by the familiar cartoon Xs of death. The his-lonyup, which we can now see as some horrific bat-cat crossbreed, stands beside him. The slitted eyes are wide, the smile even wider. This monster, it is clear, kills not for food or from a sense of self-preservation but for the simple pleasure of it.
and he still remains in the graveyard forever more.
The final image is a tombstone marked “Peter.” What may have been a cautionary tale of youthful exploration gone horribly wrong on this final, poignant page becomes something deeper– an examination of the mortality we all carry with us. We will all, one day, the author seems to be saying, face our own his-lonyups– the savage, inexplicable wilds of our own existences that kill without thought or mercy. We are all Peter, and each day is an island. Who knows what horrors await among the trees?
I told my daughter the next morning that I had nightmares about his-lonyups all night. She grinned.
I think she’s already at work on a sequel.
Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?
Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gene Wolfe has said of writing short stories that it is not enough to simply show people your ideas. He uses the analogy of a lion-tamer. A writer can’t just say to people, “Hey, look at this lion” and expect them to be impressed with her skills at showing them a lion. A writer has to do something with the lion, preferably something daring and unexpected. Wolfe says that the writer has to put her head in the idea’s mouth.
For me, that is the most difficult part of writing. Often I simply want to show people my ideas– an interesting imaginary place, for instance, or a character or device or image– but finding that narrative twist and plunge that makes the idea spark and come alive as a leaping, writhing story is something very different.
As important as Wolfe’s advice is though, I don’t feel like his requirement applies to R. A. Lafferty. There are in his stories– and specifically in the stories of this volume– rarely those unexpected twists that make you feel as though the bottom has fallen out of the narrative. In many of the stories that make up this collection, a reader can feel the end coming, can get a sense for the ultimate trajectory of the story, within the first few paragraphs. Part of this is because Lafferty does not craft those literary artifacts called short stories. Instead, he tells fables, and most fables have been told in some form before. But I think there’s also something deeper going on here with Lafferty and Wolfe’s lion-tamer analogy.
To return to Wolfe’s image, Lafferty does not need to stick his head in the idea’s mouth. Lafferty is the lion-tamer, but he’s a lion-tamer saying, “My God, it’s a lion. No, you haven’t ever really looked at a lion before. And you haven’t seen a lion like this. Look at it. This is the lionest lion that ever lived; this is the Ur-lion.” And then the lion– which, you realize, is indeed wilder and more savage and yet more merry than any lion you’ve seen before– rips out the lion-tamer’s throat and eats it with a wet chuckle, and both lion and lion-tamer have a good laugh together because that’s what lions are and that’s what lions do.
The story “Golden Trabant” in this volume is a good example of this approach. Narratively, the story is incredibly simple and has indeed been told many times before: a man discovers the El Dorado of asteroids, a rock not far from Earth formed completely of gold. What happens next? Exactly what you would expect. Pirates lay claim to it and become fabulously rich. Earth’s economy becomes unbalanced by the sudden influx of off-planet gold. The pirates build a kingdom with their new gold, sail the high skies hauling back their treasure in ship-loads, and ultimately turn each other. The asteroid becomes an irradiated waste haunted by a ghost. It’s every lost treasure story you’ve heard before with only the (now-blasé) element of being set in space. Maybe that was a new wrinkle when Lafferty wrote it, but beyond that there’s no unexpected twist that makes the story leap up out of the page like a living thing.
And yet it’s a fantastic story. Like so many of Lafferty’s, it simply works. The whole thing is alive. This is the case with many of the stories here. In some, it’s unclear what exactly is happening or has happened, plot-wise. “About a Secret Crocodile,” “Nor Limestone Islands,” and “Boomer Flats” are examples of this. “Boomer Flats” and “Maybe Jones in the City” in particular I found a bit frustrating, but the richness and jollity of Lafferty’s tone always wins me over eventually, even when they seem spun around nothing. If the bones of the story are a bit hollow, you still get Lafferty telling them. And that’s what you want. I’m convinced that had Lafferty taken it upon himself to re-write a phone book, it would be fun to read.
To be fair, there are stories with twists. There’s one at the end of “In the Garden” and “This Grand Carcass Yet” and “The Ultimate Creature.” “The Weirdest World” is all twist, and it may be one of the funniest Lafferty stories I’ve read yet. But the twist is secondary; the story is not built around it. And you probably saw it coming anyway. Moreover, the twist is usually twisted: this is a volume that highlights Lafferty’s brutal, grotesque humor, which is especially ripe in “This Grand Carcass Yet,” “Pig in a Pokey,” and “The Ultimate Creature.”
An annoying and puzzling (though easily ignored) feature of this volume is the needless division of the stories into those related to “Secret Places” and those about “Mean Men.” The stories in this work alternate back and forth between these two headings. In my edition of the book, this is even reflected by stories under each division having a differentiating font. Lafferty (not surprisingly) offers no explanation for this division, but it’s unlike Lafferty to offer much explanation for anything.
The reason the division doesn’t work though– or at least seems unnecessary and arbitrary– is that all of Lafferty’s stories are in some sense about secret places, and they’re all in some sense about mean men. They’re stories about the hidden, real world lurking just below the skin of this one and about the god or the devil lurking just below our own skins. That’s why their twists aren’t wholly unexpected: we feel them in our bones. We catch hints of them when we we’re not asleep.
If you’re new to Lafferty, this is as good a place to start with him as any. It’s hard to know what angle to approach his writings, but wading out into his short stories and learning how they rise and fall is easier than diving into one of his novels. Because, to be fair, you might not like his bright and bloody world. You might not want to get too close to that lionest of lions and hear its throaty chuckle. With his short stories, it’s easier to run away.
Last summer I sold my car and used a portion of the proceeds to buy a commuting bicycle. I wanted to start commuting by bike, and I figured the best way to do it was to remove the option of not doing it. This semester I’ve made the trip to and from my office every day but one by bike (plus a few Saturdays to do planetarium shows). By my calculations, I’ve ridden it about eight hundred miles, in rain and sun and wind and (now) snow. And I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve become one of those bike people, with all their accompanying eccentricities and various shoulder-chips.
Take, for instance, my developing attitude toward motorists. There is of course the frustration with people who don’t understand how to share the road with bicycles (as well as with other bikers who don’t understand how to ride on the road). But beyond that, there’s an easy understanding of why bikers get so self-righteous. You screw up in a car with another car, and you might get a broken fender. You screw up in a car with a bicycle, and I might get dead. The annoyance you get passing someone driving with their face in their phone, on a bicycle shades quickly into outrage. Then add to that all the self-righteousness that comes from having made a decision you believe to be healthier for yourself, your community, and the planet.
“I’m doing this for you, morons,” I often find myself thinking charitably.
People who start to ride regularly, I think, become and remain bike people also because of the simple endorphin addiction. Within a couple weeks I started looking forward to my ride each morning like my wife looks forward to a cup of coffee, because– regardless of the weather– it’s a quiet time to wake up and get warmed up and prepped for the day. I arrive at my office energized. (It’s not a terribly long ride.) And at the end of each day, I look forward to riding home, because it’s a quiet time to unwind and think. I arrive home relaxed, something that’s much less likely if I’m battling traffic down Kennedy.
Then there’s the secret that bike people realize about weather: “miserable” weather is always more miserable viewed through a window. If you have the right gear, it’s much less miserable actually being out in it. I’ve biked through cold, wet days that looked absolutely bleak from a car window. But they’re never that bad if you’re riding through them, experiencing them. (In fairness I note that I’ve yet to survive a complete Illinois winter, so stay tuned. These are words I could likely be eating in a month’s time.)
But I think the most profound realization I’ve experienced as a biker– and probably the one that makes a lot of crazy bike people seem at right angles with society at large– is simply the perspective you gain from stepping outside the motorized transit system and no longer viewing it only from the inside (which is how almost all of us view it every day). It’s a system from which it is very difficult to remove oneself, and I recognize that many people simply can’t– they don’t have the time or the luxury. If you’re not inside a car daily though, it becomes easy to see how much our transit system has truly contributed to the erosion of community. Almost everyone today is trapped in a web of haste, expense, worry, and isolation (to say nothing at all about the fossil fuel industry) that comes from owning and depending on vehicular transportation.
Cars are not evil. I get that. But they’re part of a system that has profoundly shaped the communities in which we live– and they’ve undermined those communities through haste, isolation, and the destruction of common space. I’m not saying I stop and chat with every person I pass on my bicycle, but I at least have the opportunity (and sometimes I do). I see the neighborhoods I pass through. I experience weather and place. And I honestly believe people who live in cars don’t– or at least, if they do, it’s in a much reduced capacity.
Again, I’m not saying cars are bad. They’ve become necessary, especially outside of large cities. They allow transportation in ways that would otherwise be impossible but that today are essential. My family still has a minivan, and whenever we need to cross town as a family, I drive it. But it’s undeniable that cars and their accompanying networks of roads shape things, and that things have been lost because of that shaping. And these things– sense of place, community, lack of haste, simplicity– won’t be regained unless people get outside of them, unless they work to remove themselves from that system.
I also understand that not everyone can do this. Biking to work every day is a privilege. I have the means to afford a good bike and all the necessary gear, the health to make a ten-mile round trip each day, and the flexibility of schedule that allows me the time to do so. On top of that, I have an office of my own to change clothes in once I arrive, and I don’t sweat very badly.
Not everyone can be a bike commuter, I understand.
Some of these ideas were driven home for me while reading the travel journal of Francis Baily. Baily, who was British, eventually became an important nineteenth-century astronomer and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. As a young man though he traveled through portions of frontier America in 1796 and 1796. Reading his journal, I was struck by his description of Nashville. He talks about the geography, about the river and the town’s relationship to it. He had just passed overland from Natchez, Mississippi, through hundreds of miles of wilderness along the path that would eventually be known as the Natchez Trace.
I realized, as I read his description, that though I had been to Nashville and though it had been over two hundred years later, I knew nothing of the town’s geography or how it was situated along the river (or even what that river was called). I realized that I don’t learn places. When I travel, I coast in like a ghost along networks of highways. I skim over the surface. Even when I try to travel with intention, a la Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, I’m still pushing up against the temptation for haste, to just get to the next location and ignore what’s found along the road. I know how hard it is to stop a car even if you want to, even if you’re looking for those unexpected interruptions and detours.
What’s a shame but a sometimes necessary evil on long-distance trips becomes, I think, much more tragic in our own communities. We skim across the face of our own towns and cities. Our cars, and the scaffolding of roads supporting them, keep us isolated and alone. We don’t even know our streets, and we certainly don’t know our neighbors or our neighborhoods (other than to label them “good” or “bad” depending on how we feel in our cars in them after dark).
I don’t know if bicycles can save the world. But I think they’re a pretty good start for saving our communities.