The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Neil Postman

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 Egyptians." 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. (p. 8)

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.
(p. 13)
'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 it.'
(p. 4)

Chapter 2: From Tools to Technocracy

There are three types of cultures
  1. Tool-using cultures
    • tools are used to solve specific problems of physical life
    • tools serve the symbolic worlds: art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion
    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.
    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.

    • 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
    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 improvement of man's mind and his condition are one and the same thing.
    - Francis Bacon (p. 37)

Chapter 3: From Technocracy to Technopoly

  1. Technocracies 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 Technocracy.

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.
(p. 44)

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.

  1. 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 America:

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:

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:

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.

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

Related Reading

The Control Revolution, by James Beniger
the relationship between information and culture

I read this book during April 2003.