It’s nearly impossible for contemporary critical thinkers to write about our relationship with technology without referencing Postman’s Technopoly. While it was originally published thirty years ago, many of its points and predictions remain as relevant as ever. However, Postman also gets a lot wrong. In particular, his solutions to cultural issues with tech problems seem shallow at best. For that reason, I would only recommend this book to readers interested in the history of our concerns about tech.
Postman first asserts that “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing over another,” (p. 13). Then he creates three bins for a culture’s relationship with technology:
Tool-using cultures incorporate technologies into their cultures and values. “The tools are not intruders,” (p. 25). It might be easy to think of these are primitive cultures, but that does not need to be the case.
In technocracies, “tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture…They bid to become the culture,” (p. 29). There is this married idea of technology and progress – an almost religious belief. Think Francis Bacon.
Technopoly, Postman believes, is what American culture is right now. In my opinion this is the strongest part of the book because he so powerfully articulates what’s wrong with our culture. In many ways, he hits the economic justice issues that have come into the mainstream in the last few years: “It also came to be believed that the engine of technological progress worked most efficiently when people are conceived of not as children of God or even as citizens but as consumers, that is to say, as markets,” (p. 42). “Human beings, are, in a sense, worth less than their machinery,” (p. 52).
I think Postman is right about this. How many times in the last few years have we realized that we are the product?
Postman is also right about issues with speed and availability of information and how it can be too much for a human to comprehend: “When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless,” (p. 77). Concepts like truthiness, alternative facts, fake news, flat earths, etc., are possibile in part because of this.
He also hits on the Chaplain-esque idea that we aren’t machines, but our culture seems to think we’re the best when we act and think like machines. To dovetail on this idea, I think we have a problem where we feel the need to reduce values and morals to data or economic arguments to make valid points. For example, in the criminal justice world, in the last 15 years many fiscal conservatives have been persuaded to imprison fewer people because it’s not as cost effective as specialty courts. Why does that have to be the reason? Why can’t universities make the argument that a liberal arts education improves the student’s life instead of improves potential earning power? Pick your favorite issue and think about how those arguments are made to feel valid.
Unfortunately, Postman’s solution is to have young people read classic books and to deny the idea that the story of Western civilization can have more than one voice or perspective:
“[Leftists assert that the story of Western civilization] is not the story of blacks, American Indians, Hispanics, women, homosexuals – of any people who are not white heterosexual males of Judeo-Christian heritage. This claim denies that there is or can be a national culture, a narrative of organizing power and inspiring symbols which all citizens can identify with and draw sustenance from. If this is true, it means nothing less than that our national symbols have been drained of their power to unite, and that education must become a tribal affair,” (p. 178).
This is a bizarre and unnecessary leap. Finding value in multiple perspectives can add symbols and narratives to help a culture find meanings. Why would it necessarily detract and devolve into tribalism?
In sum, this could’ve been an outstanding article or essay in a more limiited scope. Postman provides an interesting framework and articulates some important problems but provides no solutions while alienating many readers.