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.