The Surrender of Culture to Technology
Copyright ©1992 by Neil Postman.
Published by Knopf, New York
There are two cultures, and they are opposed to each other:
technology and everybody else. Technology is not the benign tool that
can be used for good or evil that people generally think. Instead, it
attacks and destroys what is vital to our humanity. Technology has what
many view as benefits (longer life, easier labor, etc.) and so has been
assimilated by our culture in such a way that its long term results are
seldom investigated. This book is an attempt to show how technology can
be a dangerous enemy.
Chapter 1: The Judgment of Thamus
Plato's record of Socrates includes a dialogue between Thamus, a king
of a city in Egypt, and a god skilled in invention. Thamus was indroduced
to an idea called writing that would "improve the memory and wisdom of
." Thamus replies that writing will not improve memory, for
people who use it will become forgetful and will rely on what is written
for their memory. Writing will make men knowledgable, but not wise, for
they will receive knowledge without proper instruction. They will think
they are wiser than they really are, and in their conceit, they will
be a burden to society.
Thamus is wrong in his pronouncement that technology will be only a burden.
Every technology can be a burden and a blessing. However, the loudest
proponents of technology fail to recognize this and see only what is
potentially good in a technology. Freud says that technology creates the
necessity for its own conveniences. We would need no telephone if there
were no trains to take people hundreds of miles away. We would need no
telegraph if there were no ships for overseas voyages. Hygiene has reduced
the infant mortality rate, but people have chosen to have fewer children
so than a typical family rears no more children than before. "What
good is long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so
full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?"
Technology is not neutral. "The uses made of a techology are determined by
the structure of the technology itself." (p. 7) Technologies can be denied
entry into a culture, but once they have entered, they will do all that
they have in them to do. They cannot be restrained. Therefore, we must
deeply examine any technology before we embrace it. "Radical technologies
create new definitions of old terms," and this usually happens without our
notice. (p. 8) Thamus feared that wisdom would be confused with knowledge
or recollection. Television has altered what is meant by political
debate, news, and public opinion. Writing, printing, and
television have all changed the meanings of truth and law.
A knowledge monopoly is a group who have control over the
workings of a technology and they accumulate power and inevitably form
a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the
specialized knowledge made available by the technology. (p. 9)
Schoolteachers have had a knowledge monopoly because of the printing
press. Televesion seeks to unseat them and form a new knowledge
monopoly of sorts, because power is obtained without the knowledge (or
perhaps much of it) that can be gained by the study of books
(i.e. enternainers, technicians, executives, etc.). Computers form
another sort of monopoly, in which there are winners and losers.
Businesses who can make things more quickly, cheaply, or perfectly
benefit. Airlines, banks, and scientists all benefit from rapid
calculation ability. They are winners. The average person who is
treated as a number to be pacified or duped, flooded with junk mail,
tracked and controlled, and confused about the decisions made about
them and "for" them, is the loser.
The winners often expect the
losers to cheer for the new technology, and the losers often do, even
though their lives are not made substantially better by the
technology. The winners often do not realize what is at stake with the
change to a new technology, either. This is the case with America, who
revels in anything new, blindly beliving that newer is better,
especially when it comes to technology and research.
...embedded in every tool is an idealogical bias, a predisposition to
construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one
thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more
loudly than another.
'Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the
best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice
Chapter 2: From Tools to Technocracy
There are three types of cultures
- Tool-using cultures
These culture's tools did not prevent people from believing in religion,
politics, education, or legitimacy of their social organization. Their
beliefs restricted the uses of the tools and directed their development.
They are not necessarily technologically poor and may be quite
sophisticated. Theology directed all aspects of life, including the use
of tools and their relationship to humans.
- tools are used to solve specific problems of physical life
- tools serve the symbolic worlds: art, politics, myth, ritual,
Examples: Samuri honor governed the use of swords, Pope Innocent II
prohibited the use of the lethal crossbow against Christians
In the West, three items ushered in Technocracy.
Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Descartes prepared the way for
Technocracy by unseating theology as the ultimate pursuit of science. Francis
Bacon was the first man of the technocratic age. He pursued "the happiness
of mankind" and belived that the only real goal of the sciences was to
improve the quality of life and wealth of humans.
- the machanical clock redefined "time"
- the printing press attacked the oral tradition
- the telescope attacked the supremecy of Judao-Christian
accuracy of describing the universe according to theology
The improvement of man's mind and his condition are
one and the same thing.
- Francis Bacon (p. 37)
Chapter 3: From Technocracy to Technopoly
Tools are key to the worldview of the culture. Tools are the most important
item in the culture, and all other aspects of culture are secondary in
importance. There is a separation of moral and intellectual values in
The start of the first Technocracy in England might be either James
Watt's steam engine (1765) or Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations
(1776). Acquiring wealth became the pursuit of man's efforts. Invention
was a pursuit for the sake of making humanity's position better (more
wealth, less work, etc.). Progress was important because it made more
wealth for the pioneer. Men began inventing things without asking why
the things should be invented. Humans were no longer craftsmen, they
now tended the machines, who were more important. Men, women, and children
worked long hours in dangerous conditions for the sake of the wealth of
the few. The machines (and the profit they produced) were more important
than humans or an individual's humanity.
Technocracies brought into being an increased respect for the average
person, whose potential and even convenience became a matter of compelling
political interest and urgent social policy.
Technocracy began to alter the meaning of humanity. It was a time
of tension between age-old definitions of humanity as a creature
needing community, purpose, and labor and the new, self-pleasing,
isolated, and educated to the point of no longer needing wisdom. Life
could be distilled to its essence and calculated and manipulated to
anyone's liking. The success of the scientific method would solve all
our problems, eventually, and we would no longer have the need for
the things of the past.
The real problem with this mindset is that it does not (or did
not) evaluate where this new definition would take us. The people in
Technocracy who embrace science and progress were also some of the big
believers in the older mode of thinking about humanity. Mark Twain
loved industrialized progress, but wrote stories about human
interaction and virtue. The old religion was not gone, but it was no
longer supreme. Technology, science, and progress were proven tools
that brought (at least temporary) hapiness: money, time, pleasure, and
freedom from labor. People in Technocracy still clung to some of their
religious beliefs, but it was not always preeminent.
The conflict between technologism and religion came to a head in
twentieth-century America. Henry Ford's assembly line allowed him to
trounce his competition. The Scopes Monkey Trial gave public credence to
the victory of science over religion. A critical assumption to that was
the necessity for empirical, observable evidence. Anything that cannot
be observed must not exist. This is the idea that was responsible
for completely subjugating and trivializing religion. The author finds the
first key event in the rise of technopoly in the publishing of a book,
Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Removing the necessity
for critical thinking of humans, only adherence to the machine of formulaic
processes. The machinery knew better than the people did, and therefore, it
was to be trusted and refined more than the human.
- Technopoly – the submission of all forms of
cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.
Four factors that lead to to Technopoly's rise and ability to flourish in
- ubiquitous invention in America led to the association of newness and
improvement; Everything was advancing technologically and seeming to
improve quality of life, standard of living, lifespan, etc.
- genious and ruthlessness of American capitalists–men who
exploited technology, opportunity, and humanity for wealth. These
men let nothing stand in the way of technological development. (Bell,
Edison, Rockefeller, Aster, Ford, Carnegie) They convinced the people
of America that the future need not remember the past.
- Technology provided endless conveniences and comforts.
Old solutions were replaced by new technologies. Medicine
could cure what people formerly relied on religion to
do. Families need not live close since they could
drive and telephone and, theoretically, still maintain
their relationships. Books were replaced by radio,
which was replaced by television.
- Religion and faith came under open attack. Philosophers denied
God. Scientists couldn't prove he existed at all or proved that he couldn't
exist. Science and machinery were easier to trust than God, for they were
tangible and you could observe them work successfully.
Chapter 4: The Improbable World
The rise of endless innovation, scientific study, and faith in their
inerrancy has created a world in which people don't know what to believe.
They have no absolutes to cling to, at least not any that provide limits
and definitions of what reality is. They believe what science tells them
is true, even if it is unbelievable, because they have no limits and no
reason not to
believe it. There is no assumption of order to the
universe. There is no coherent, comprehensive understanding of the world.
There is now too much information for any person to know and understand
everything. In this excess, people, at best, only know some and certainly
do not know which conflicting sources to believe. People chase after more
information, thinking that having more will make things better. People
want access to more or better information. The necessity of this pursuit,
however, is not altogether clear.
The information revolution that made information the goal of our pursuits
was brought about by five inventions:
- The printing press made it possible for numerous copies of
information to be mass-produced (faster than raising a human to relay
the it) and easily transported.
- The telegraph made information an item to be bought and
sold in quantity. It no longer mattered as much what kind of
information or how good it was, but how much of it could be obtained
from the most exotic or varied sources. Information became
context-free, requiring that it not be of any practical value
- Photography made it possible to sum up information previously
stored in words in a visually appealing manner. Photography was the
centerpiece of journalism and advertising, and it tended to replace
writing in importance.
- Broadcasting permitted the transmission of new information
every day, hour, and minute so that a person could never have all of
- Computers allowed more information to be transmitted in less
time and it could be stored and analyzed and the results of that analysis
became new information to be transmitted, collected, and analyzed.
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.
Chapter 5: The Broken Defenses
A society's defenses against information overflow are its social
institutions that limit incoming information. In Technopoly, many of
these defeneses are crippled or broken and provide little or no help
in limiting information so that individuals can make decisions based
on what is relevant and true. These are some defenses:
Courts determine what evidence is admissible and what is
irrelevant or heresay. They function because they greatly restrict
what information is allowed entry and acceptance.
Schools limit what areas of study are considered legitimate by
the classes they offer and what is taught in those classes.
Families are informal institutions that pass on language and
belief, conserving old ideas and skeptically accepting new ones. They
also determine which information is appropriate for younger family
members to know and which is reserved only for adults.
Political parties legitimize sources of information. Because
people generally align themselves with one party, the party functions
as a statement of principle for everyone else who aligns himself with
it. Thus, you can know someone's intentions and the quality of their
ideas based on the party with whom they align.
The State or Religion is the strongest defense
mechanism. Religion creates meaning for the believer, giving him a
history of the world and an explanation for how it came into being,
mandates from a superior moral authority, and the means to accept
and reject certain information based on its (or its source's) moral
quality. Religion instructs people how to behave and how not to
behave, how to think and not to think, and what to believe and what
not to believe. Religion serves as a means to limit and place value
on certain information.
The Theory of Science is a belief system that does not
provide moral guidance at all. Such a belief system is another way of
When religion loses much or all of its binding power–if it is
reduced to mere rhetorical ash–then confusion inevitably follows
about what to attend and how to assign it significance.
The religion of the state, as was Marxism (a child of the Theory of
Science), can be equally powerful as an information limiter. Marxists
knew some fundamental, unprovable, truths that dictated how the world
worked and how it should operate for everyone's best interest. It
has, apparently, failed the test of time because Marxist nations have
not been able to provide for their proletariat the kind of material
wealth that "liberal democracy" has for its middle class. Things may
yet change, but for now, Marxism is not as widely held as a belief
system as it used to be. Liberal democracy, as seen is America, has
not yet proven whether it can be an effective limiter of information,
providing moral guidance to its believers. The definition of "liberal
democracy" has even changed from the 18th century, when it had its
roots in Biblical morality. Today's liberal democracy does not have
such strong ties to morality and might be better described as
"commodity capitalism." Liberal democracy is entirely different in
Technopoly than it was in Technocracy.
In American Technopoly, the only means left to restrict information
are technical ones, which necessarily generate more information needing
to be processed, included, or excluded.
Bureaucracy has as its chief aim, efficiency. Its goal is to
collect meaningful information, hence its use of the
standardized form. It was not originally designed for this sole
purpose, but as government grew, so did its information processing
needs. Now, bureaucracy creates more information than is
manageable, so there are bureaucracies to manage
bureaucracies. Because of their size, bureaucracies remove their
workers from the responsibility of their actions. Alfred Eichmann
denied responsibility for the fates of those he was in charge of
transporting because his job was only concerned with moving people,
not why or what happened to them after they arrived. Modern
beauraucrats use the same line of reasoning: they are not
responsible for the human consequences of their decisions. The
true danger of bureaucracy is that they were not conceived as any
sort of means of guidance, but now, in the absence of a greater
authority, are used to solve moral, social, and political problems.
Experts are another information-limiting source.
Chapter 6: The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology
Chapter 7: The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology
Chapter 8: Invisible Technologies
Chapter 9: Scientism
Chapter 10: The Great Symbol Drain
Chapter 11: The Loving Resistance Fighter
- The Control Revolution, by James Beniger
- the relationship between information and culture