Technopoly - Neil Postman 💛

Thoreau’s remark that our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end.

technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines freedom,” truth,” intelligence,” fact,” wisdom,” memory,” history”—all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask.

in cultures that have a democratic ethos, relatively weak traditions, and a high receptivity to new technologies, everyone is inclined to be enthusiastic about technological change, believing that its benefits will eventually spread evenly among the entire population.

his idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself.

To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A − and that man’s is a C + would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.

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. Our understanding of what is real is different.

To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.4 The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.

we see them most clearly in the schools, where two great technologies confront each other in uncompromising aspect for the control of students’ minds.

They are failures, but not because they are stupid. They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side—at least for the moment.

Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility, which is the context within which Thamus believed proper instruction and real knowledge must be communicated. Print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy. Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean ecological” in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change.

In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry. And that is why the competition among media is so fierce. Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization—not to mention their reason for being—reflects the world-view promoted by the technology.

Cultures may be classified into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. At the present time, each type may be found somewhere on the planet, although the first is rapidly disappearing: we must travel to exotic places to find a tool-using culture.

Efficiency and productivity were problems for slaves, not philosophers.

The name tool-using culture” derives from the relationship in a given culture between tools and the belief system or ideology. The tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view.

In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.

North Whitehead summed it up best when he remarked that the greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and the question of why we invent things receded in importance.

Their discontent was expressed through the destruction of machines, mostly in the garment and fabric industry; since then the term Luddite” has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naïve opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.

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.

In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what.

I mean that the world we live in is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact, whether actual or imagined, that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world that would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction.

Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief.

To live in a world in which there were no random events—in which everything was, in theory, comprehensible; in which every act of nature was infused with meaning—is an irreplaceable gift of theology.

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?

The invention of what is called a curriculum was a logical step toward organizing, limiting, and discriminating among available sources of information.

Schools were, in short, a means of governing the ecology of information.

This is why it is possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin your utterance with the words A study has shown…” or Scientists now tell us that…” More important, it is why in a Technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies, no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves. Alfred North Whitehead called such information inert,” but that metaphor is too passive. Information without regulation can be lethal.

The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.

We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquillity and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.

It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose.

Necessarily but perhaps unfortunately, the Bible also explained how the world came into being in such literal detail that it could not accommodate new information produced by the telescope and subsequent technologies.

First, Technopoly’s experts tend to be ignorant about any matter not directly related to their specialized area. The average psychotherapist, for example, barely has even superficial knowledge of literature, philosophy, social history, art, religion, and biology, and is not expected to have such knowledge. Second, like bureaucracy itself (with which an expert may or may not be connected), Technopoly’s experts claim dominion not only over technical matters but also over social, psychological, and moral affairs.

We come to believe that our score is our intelligence, or our capacity for creativity or love or pain. We come to believe that the results of opinion polls are what people believe, as if our beliefs can be encapsulated in such sentences as I approve” and I disapprove.”

When Catholic priests use wine, wafers, and incantations to embody spiritual ideas, they acknowledge the mystery and the metaphor being used. But experts of Technopoly acknowledge no such overtones or nuances when they use forms, standardized tests, polls, and other machinery to give technical reality to ideas about intelligence, creativity, sensitivity, emotional imbalance, social deviance, or political opinion. They would have us believe that technology can plainly reveal the true nature of some human condition or belief because the score, statistic, or taxonomy has given it technical form.

When it comes to machinery, what Technopoly insists upon most is accuracy. The idea embedded in the machine is largely ignored, no matter how peculiar.

But in Technopoly there is no need for such intellectual struggle. Machines eliminate complexity, doubt, and ambiguity. They work swiftly, they are standardized, and they provide us with numbers that you can see and calculate with. They tell us that when eight green lights go on someone is speaking the truth. That is all there is to it. They tell us that a score of 136 means more brains than a score of 104. This is Technopoly’s version of magic.

Here we have expressed two of the key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: Medicine is about disease, not the patient. And, what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable.

The first had been characterized by direct communication with the patient’s experiences based on the patient’s reports, and the doctor’s questions and observations. The second was characterized by direct communication with patients’ bodies through physical examination, including the use of carefully selected technologies. The stage we are now in is characterized by indirect communication with the patient’s experience and body through technical machinery. In this stage, we see the emergence of specialists—for example, pathologists and radiologists—who interpret the meaning of technical information and have no connection whatsoever with the patient, only with tissue and photographs.

This is not to say that the computer is a blight on the symbolic landscape; only that, like medical technology, it has usurped powers and enforced mind-sets that a fully attentive culture might have wished to deny it.

Machines cannot feel and, just as important, cannot understand. ELIZA can ask, Why are you worried about your mother?,” which might be exactly the question a therapist would ask. But the machine does not know what the question means or even that the question means.

It reflects a profound shift in perception about the relationship of computers to humans. If computers can become ill, then they can become healthy. Once healthy, they can think clearly and make decisions.

Through a curious form of grammatical alchemy, the sentence We use the computer to calculate” comes to mean The computer calculates.” If a computer calculates, then it may decide to miscalculate or not calculate at all. That is what bank tellers mean when they tell you that they cannot say how much money is in your checking account because the computers are down.”

Unlike most machines, computers do no work; they direct work. They are, as Norbert Wiener said, the technology of command and control” and have little value without something to control.

We cannot dismiss the possibility that, if Adolf Eichmann had been able to say that it was not he but a battery of computers that directed the Jews to the appropriate crematoria, he might never have been asked to answer for his actions.

I am constantly amazed at how obediently people accept explanations that begin with the words The computer shows…” or The computer has determined…” It is Technopoly’s equivalent of the sentence It is God’s will,” and the effect is roughly the same.

What is clear is that, to date, computer technology has served to strengthen Technopoly’s hold, to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress. And it has done so by advancing several interconnected ideas.

doctors and patients have come to believe that, like a machine, a human being is made up of parts which when defective can be replaced by mechanical parts that function as the original did without impairing or even affecting any other part of the machine.

Computers make it easy to convert facts into statistics and to translate problems into equations. And whereas this can be useful (as when the process reveals a pattern that would otherwise go unnoticed), it is diversionary and dangerous when applied indiscriminately to human affairs.

The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. I would argue that this is, on the face of it, nonsense.

This is the great secret of language: Because it comes from inside us, we believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased, apolitical expression of how the world really is.

Students will always be smarter” when answering a multiple-choice test than when answering a fill-in” test, even when the subject matter is the same. A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased.

Of course questions can be culturally biased. (Why, for example, should anyone be asked about Thomas Jefferson at all, let alone when he died?) My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as is its content.

The next time you watch a televised beauty contest in which women are ranked numerically, you should remember Francis Galton, whose pathological romance with numbers originated this form of idiocy.

We use the word intelligence” to refer to a variety of human capabilities of which we approve. There is no such thing as intelligence.” It is a word, not a thing, and a word of a very high order of abstraction.

Few scientific’ concepts have so thoroughly muddled the thinking of both scientists and the general public as that of the intelligence quotient’ or IQ.’ The idea that intelligence can be quantitatively measured along a single linear scale has caused untold harm to our society in general, and to education in particular.”3

The public’s opinion” on almost any issue will be a function of the question asked. (I might point out that in the seminar held by the congressmen, not one asked a question about the questions. They were interested in results, not in how these were obtained, and it did not seem to occur to them that the results and how they are obtained are inseparable.)

The point is that the use of statistics in polling changes the meaning of public opinion” as dramatically as television changes the meaning of political debate.” In the American Technopoly, public opinion is a yes or no answer to an unexamined question.

An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate. A question may invite” an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it; we might better say that people do not exactly have” opinions but are, rather, involved in opinioning.”

A course is a technology for learning. I have taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology.

One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

When a method of doing things becomes so deeply associated with an institution that we no longer know which came first—the method or the institution—then it is difficult to change the institution or even to imagine alternative methods for achieving its purposes.

there is an irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink. A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.

The scientist uses mathematics to assist in uncovering and describing the structure of nature. At best, sociologists (to take one example) use quantification merely to give some precision to their ideas. But there is nothing especially scientific in that.

Theories in social science disappear, apparently, because they are boring, not because they are refuted.

If a theory cannot be tested for its falsity, it is not a scientific theory—as, for example, Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Psychiatrists can provide many examples supporting the validity of the theory, but they have no answer to the question What evidence would prove the theory false?”

I do not say, incidentally, that the Oedipus complex and God do not exist. Nor do I say that to believe in them is harmful—far from it. I say only that, there being no tests that could, in principle, show them to be false, they fall outside the purview of science, as do almost all theories that make up the content of social science.”

what matters is how people behave in situations where their behavior makes a difference to their lives.

Milgram’s experiment does not confirm or falsify any theory that might be said to postulate a law of human nature. His study—which, incidentally, I find both fascinating and terrifying—is not science. It is something else entirely.

In fact, the stories of social researchers are much closer in structure and purpose to what is called imaginative literature; that is to say, both a social researcher and a novelist give unique interpretations to a set of human events and support their interpretations with examples in various forms. Their interpretations cannot be proved or disproved but will draw their appeal from the power of their language, the depth of their explanations, the relevance of their examples, and the credibility of their themes. And all of this has, in both cases, an identifiable moral purpose. The words true” and false” do not apply here in the sense that they are used in mathematics or science. For there is nothing universally and irrevocably true or false about these interpretations. There are no critical tests to confirm or falsify them. There are no natural laws from which they are derived. They are bound by time, by situation, and above all by the cultural prejudices of the researcher or writer.

I think it justifiable to say that, in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have come largely from the pens of social historians and researchers. Think of John Dewey, William James, Erik Erikson, Alfred Kinsey, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, B. F. Skinner, Carl Rogers, Marshall McLuhan, Barbara Tuchman, Noam Chomsky, Robert Coles, even Stanley Milgram, and you must acknowledge that our ideas of what we are like and what kind of country we live in come from their stories to a far greater extent than from the stories of our most renowned novelists.

Unlike science, social research never discovers anything.

I have tried to show that science, social research, and the kind of work we call imaginative literature are three quite different kinds of enterprise. In the end, all of them are forms of storytelling—human attempts to account for our experience in coherent ways. But they have different aims, ask different questions, follow different procedures, and give different meanings to truth.” In most of these respects, social research has little in common with science, and much in common with other forms of imaginative literature. Yet social scientists” have consistently sought to identify themselves, and in more than name, with physicists, chemists, biologists, and others who inquire into the lawful regularities of the natural world. Why students of the human condition should do this is not hard to explain.

When natural scientists speak out on moral questions, on what is good or evil to do, they speak as the rest of us—as concerned citizens on a threatened planet, as rational women and men, as people of conscience who must struggle no less than you must, or I, to answer for themselves where the ultimate authority for their moral judgment lies.

In any case, they have not been squeamish about imputing to their discoveries” and the rigor of their procedures the power to direct us in how we ought rightly to behave. That is why social scientists” are so often to be found on our television screens, and on our bestseller lists, and in the self-help” sections of airport bookstands: not because they can tell us how some humans sometimes behave but because they purport to tell us how we should; not because they speak to us as fellow humans who have lived longer, or experienced more of human suffering, or thought more deeply and reasoned more carefully about some set of problems, but because they consent to maintain the illusion that it is their data, their procedures, their science, and not themselves, that speak.

What we are talking about here is not blasphemy but trivialization, against which there can be no laws. In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise.

the adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else.

The first, as neatly expressed by the social critic Jay Rosen, is that, although symbols, especially images, are endlessly repeatable, they are not inexhaustible. Second, the more frequently a significant symbol is used, the less potent is its meaning.

One picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. But a thousand pictures, especially if they are of the same object, may not be worth anything at all.

What this means is that somewhere near the core of Technopoly is a vast industry with license to use all available symbols to further the interests of commerce, by devouring the psyches of consumers.

To the question Why should we do this?” the answer is: To make learning more efficient and more interesting.” Such an answer is considered entirely adequate, since in Technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. It is, therefore, usually not noticed that this answer does not address the question What is learning for?” Efficiency and interest” is a technical answer, an answer about means, not ends; and it offers no pathway to a consideration of educational philosophy. Indeed, it blocks the way to such a consideration by beginning with the question of how we should proceed rather than with the question of why.

The commercial will either imply or state explicitly that education will help the persevering student to get a good job. And that’s it. Well, not quite. There is also the idea that we educate ourselves to compete with the Japanese or the Germans in an economic struggle to be number one. Neither of these purposes is, to say the least, grand or inspiring. The story each suggests is that the United States is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.

After the war, the yellow ribbons will fade from sight, but the question of who we are and what we represent will remain. Is it possible that the only symbol left to use will be an F-15 fighter plane guided by an advanced computer system?

Those who resist the American Technopoly are people who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why; who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations; who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth; who refuse to allow psychology or any social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense; who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding; who do not regard the aged as irrelevant; who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room; who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake; who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology—from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer—is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.

a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.

There is no set of ideas or attitudes that permeates all parts of the curriculum. The curriculum is not, in fact, a course of study” at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it is a person who possesses skills.” In other words, a technocrat’s ideal—a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills.

Carl Rogers himself once wrote that anything that can be taught is probably either trivial or harmful, thus making any discussion of the schools unnecessary.

The structure of the subject-matter curriculum that exists in most schools at present is entirely usable. For another, it is a theme that can begin in the earliest grades and extend through college in ever-deepening and -widening dimensions. Better still, it provides students with a point of view from which to understand the meaning of subjects, for each subject can be seen as a battleground of sorts, an arena in which fierce intellectual struggle has taken place and continues to take place. Each idea within a subject marks the place where someone fell and someone rose.

Cicero put it, To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.”

The first is that history is not merely one subject among many that may be taught; every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher.

Whatever events may be included in the study of the past, the worst thing we can do is to present them devoid of the coherence that a theory or theories can provide—that is to say, as meaningless. This, we can be sure, Technopoly does daily. The histories teacher must go far beyond the event” level into the realm of concepts, theories, hypotheses, comparisons, deductions, evaluations. The idea is to raise the level of abstraction at which history” is taught. This idea would apply to all subjects, including science.

Every teacher ought to be a semantics teacher, since it is not possible to separate language from what we call knowledge. Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject. But it would be extremely useful to the growth of their intelligence if our youth had available a special course in which fundamental principles of language were identified and explained.

The schools should stay as far from contemporary works as possible. Because of the nature of the communications industry, our students have continuous access to the popular arts of their own times—its music, rhetoric, design, literature, architecture. Their knowledge of the form and content of these arts is by no means satisfactory. But their ignorance of the form and content of the art of the past is cavernous. This is one good reason for emphasizing the art of the past.

Another is that there is no subject better suited to freeing us from the tyranny of the present than the historical study of art. Painting, for example, is more than three times as old as writing, and contains in its changing styles and themes a fifteen-thousand-year-old record of the ascent of humanity.

I have no illusion that such an education program can bring a halt to the thrust of a technological thought-world. But perhaps it will help to begin and sustain a serious conversation that will allow us to distance ourselves from that thought-world, and then criticize and modify it. Which is the hope of my book as well.