Technological determinism

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology’ is a book by Neil Postman published in 1992 that describes a society in which technology is deified, meaning ‘the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.’ It is characterized by a surplus of information generated by technology, which technological tools are in turn employed to cope with, in order to provide direction and purpose for society and individuals. Postman considers technopoly to be the most recent of three kinds of cultures distinguished by shifts in their attitude towards technology – tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies.

Each, he says, is produced by the emergence of new technologies that ‘compete with old ones…mostly for dominance of their worldviews.’ According to Postman, a tool-using culture employs technologies only to solve physical problems, as spears, cooking utensils, and water mills do, and to ‘serve the symbolic world’ of religion, art, politics and tradition, as tools used to construct cathedrals do. He claims that all such cultures are either theocratic or ‘unified by some metaphysical theory,’ which forced tools to operate within the bounds of a controlling ideology and made it ‘almost impossible for technics to subordinate people to its own needs.’

In a technocracy, rather than existing in harmony with a theocratic world-view, tools are central to the ‘thought-world’ of the culture. Postman claims that tools ‘attack culture…[and] bid to become culture,’ subordinating existing traditions, politics, and religions. Postman cites the example of the telescope destroying the Judeo-Christian belief that the Earth is the center of the solar system, bringing about a ‘collapse…of the moral center of gravity in the West.’ Postman characterizes a technocracy as compelled by the ‘impulse to invent,’ an ideology first advocated by Francis Bacon in the early 17th Century. He believed that human beings could acquire knowledge about the natural world and use it to ‘improve the lot of mankind,’ which led to the idea of invention for its own sake and the idea of progress. According to Postman, this thinking became widespread in Europe from the late 18th Century. However, a technocratic society remains loosely controlled by social and religious traditions, he clarifies. For instance, he states that the United States remained bound to notions of ‘holy men and sin, grandmothers and families, regional loyalties and two-thousand-year-old traditions’ at the time of its founding.

Postman defines technopoly as a ‘totalitarian technocracy,’ which demands the ‘submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.’ Echoing French philosopher Jacques Ellul’s1964 conceptualization of technology as autonomous, ‘self-determinative’ independently of human action, and undirected in its growth, technology in a time of Technopoly actively eliminates all other ‘thought-worlds.’ Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning in machines and technique. This is exemplified, in Postman’s view, by the computer, the ‘quintessential, incomparable, near-perfect’ technology for a technopoly. It establishes sovereignty over all areas of human experience based on the claim that it ”thinks’ better than we can.’

A technopoly is founded on the belief that technique is superior to lax, ambiguous and complex human thinking and judgement, in keeping with one of Frederick W. Taylor’s ‘Principles of scientific management.’ It values efficiency, precision, and objectivity. It also relies upon the ‘elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity.’ The idea of progress is overcome by the goal of obtaining information for its own sake. Therefore, a technopoly is characterized by a lack of a cultural coherence or a ‘transcendent sense of purpose or meaning.’ Postman attributes the origins of technopoly to ‘scientism,’ the belief held by early social scientists including Auguste Compte that the practices of natural and social science would reveal the truth of human behavior and provide ‘an empirical source of moral authority.’

Postman refers to political economist Harold Innis’ concept of ‘knowledge monopolies’ to explain the manner in which technology usurps power in a technopoly. New technologies transform those who can create and use them into an ‘elite group,’ a knowledge monopoly, which is granted ‘undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence.’ Subsequently, Postman claims, those outside of this monopoly are led to believe in the false ‘wisdom’ offered by the new technology, which has little relevance to the average person. Postman also argues that the information endlessly generated by technologies in a technopoly, particularly communications technologies, result in ‘information glut.’ Telegraphy and photography, he states, redefined information from something that sought out to solve particular problems to a commodity that is potentially irrelevant to the receiver. Thus, in technopoly, ‘information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.’ Postman claims that this surplus of information results in a lack of understanding, since ‘technology deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief.’ Moreover, he argues that too much information leads to the inevitable refutation of any theory, causing information to become ‘essentially meaningless.’

In the U.S. technopoly, excessive faith and trust in technology and quantification has led to absurdness such as an excess of medical tests in lieu of a doctor’s judgment, treatment-induced illnesses (‘iatrogenics’), scoring in beauty contests, an emphasis on exact scheduling in academic courses,  and the interpretation of individuals through ‘invisible technologies’ like IQ tests, opinion polls, and academic grading, which leave out meaning or nuance. If bureaucracies implement their rules in computers, it can happen that the computer’s output is decisive, the original social objective is treated as irrelevant, and the prior decisions about what the computer system says is not questioned in practice when it should be. The author criticizes the use of metaphors characterizing people as information-processing machines or vice versa — e.g. that people are ‘programmed’ or ‘de-programmed’ or ‘hard-wired,’ or ‘the computer believes …’; these metaphors are ‘reductionist.’ A technopoly also trivializes significant cultural and religious symbols through their endless reproduction. Postman echoes French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in this view, who theorizes that ‘technique as a medium quashes…the ‘message’ of the product (its use value),’ since a symbol’s ‘social finality gets lost in seriality.’

Postman’s argument stems from the premise that the uses of a technology are determined by its characteristics – ‘its functions follow from its form.’ This draws on Marshall McLuhan’s theory that ‘the medium is the message’ because it controls the scale and form of human interaction. Hence, Postman claims that once introduced, each technology ‘plays out its hand,’ leaving its users to be, in Thoreau’s words, ‘ools of our tools.’ According to Tiles and Oberdiek, this pessimistic understanding of pervasive technology renders individuals ‘strangely impotent.’ David Croteau and William Hoynes criticize such technologically deterministic arguments for underestimating the agency of a technology’s users. Russell Neuman suggests that ordinary people skilfully organize  filter, and skim information, and actively ‘seek out’ information rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.

It has also been argued that technologies are shaped by social factors more so than by their inherent properties. Star suggests that Postman neglects to account for the ‘actual development, adaptation and regulation of technology.’ According to Tiles and Oberdiek, pessimistic accounts of technology overriding culture are based on a particular vision of human values. They emphasize ‘artistic creativity, intellectual culture, development of interpersonal relations, or religion as being the realms in which human freedom finds expression and in which human fulfillment is to be found.’ They suggest that technological optimists merely adhere to an alternative worldview that values the ‘exercise of reason in the service of free will’ and the ability of technological developments to ‘serve human ends.’

Postman’s characterization of technology as an ideological being has also been criticized. He refers to the ‘god’ of technopolists speaking of ‘efficiency, precision, objectivity,’ and hence eliminating the notions of sin and evil which exist in a separate ‘moral universe.’ Stuart Weir argues that technologies are ‘not ideological beings that take…near-anthropomorphic control of people’s loves, beliefs and aspirations.’ He in fact suggests that new technologies have had remarkably little effect on pre-existing human beliefs. Postman speaks of technological change as ‘ecological…one significant change generates total change.’ Hence, technopoly brought about by communications technologies must result in a drastic change in the beliefs of a society, such that prior ‘thought worlds’ of ritual, myth, and religion cannot exist. Star conversely argues that new tools may create new environments, but do ‘not necessarily extinguish older beliefs or the ability to act pragmatically upon them.’


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