This Is Technopoly
In his prescient book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), the cultural critic Neil Postman describes technological change as “neither additive nor subtractive.” Technology is ecological to Postman “in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change.”
He outlines the brutal truth that new technologies, and their effects, don’t limit themselves to human activity or one particular sphere of influence. They are all-encompassing, directly visible in some regards, while invisible and ever-present in others.
When a technology is introduced into an environment, the initial conditions of how that technology is received, evaluated for its usefulness, and regulated or allowed to flourish becomes paramount for the populace employing it. Whether cultural, historical, or geographical, influences are baked into any technology’s first principles.
Read “Can Social Technologists Solve the Atomization Problem?“
Technology Isn’t Neutral
When a new technology is introduced, it does not add or subtract anything from the whole. It, quite literally, changes everything. Postman riffs on the implications of such paradigm shifts:
“What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what way it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school.
Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself.
A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?
And if the politician cannot think beyond the next election, then we must wonder about what new media do to the idea of political organization and to the conception of citizenship.”
Postman also describes how different collections of humans will have divergent approaches to new technologies. Oral cultures usually elevate togetherness, group learning, and cooperation, while print cultures tend to promote competition, personal autonomy, and the individual. Oral cultures are highly contextualized, as they are grounded in place, while print cultures are primarily low context and field-independent, preferring universals overparticulars.
“On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline,” explains Postman. “On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response.”
Postman says this is in large part due to cultural differences: “Our understanding of what is real is different . . . . Embedded in every tool is an ideological 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.”
In other words, “The medium is the message,” as the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously exclaimed. Technology is not neutral or void of values.
In his seminal work The Bias of Communication (1951), the Canadian political theorist Harold Innis suggests three basic questions to ask when discussing the development of communication media. How do specific communication technologies operate? What assumptions do they take from and contribute to society? What forms of power do they encourage?
If we view a new technology as ecological, we can begin to see it for what it is, with “both eyes open.” Only when we acknowledge technology’s successes, while also being transparent about its failings, can we understand what new technology is designed to do. The uses of any technology are almost always determined by the structure, or topology, of the technology itself. Its function(s) follow its form(s).
Words, meanings, and terms change when a new technology bursts onto the scene. It can sometimes even develop a meaning opposite its previous definition. Just consider the word “connection” and how its connotation has changed throughout the digital revolution. Connection was defined very differently before the internet and will continue to evolve as our digital sphere enlarges.
Technology has and will continue to redefine words like: “freedom,” “truth,” “intelligence,” “fact,” “wisdom,” “memory,” and “history.” But Postman goes further than just language: “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.”
Tools give humans the ability to alter our environment. Sometimes to the detriment of the species, and sometimes for the overall betterment of humanity. When knowledge about tools and how to design, make, and employ them is held within a select few individuals, corporations, or industries, then a technocracy is being described. If left unchecked, technocracy can develop and strengthen itself into a semi-autonomous morphed entity called technopoly—which holds technology supreme, anything getting in the way of limitless growth is akin to blasphemy.
Read “Unlearning Some Western Mindsets“
Technology Changes How We Perceive Reality
“We have become the tool of our tools.” ―Henry David Thoreau
The history of Homo sapiens is one of sophisticated tool use. There is evidence that our ancestors, Homo habilis and Homo erectus, invented tools and language, respectively. This allowed us to organize, multiply, and spread across the globe.
At first, tool use was as simple and direct as sharpening rocks for the cutting of wood and animal hides, as well as combat with other humans. Tool usage increased after more and more of us banded together in groups and deployed insights from individuals for the benefit of the tribe. It was the continued evolution of better and more useful tools amongst larger groups of ancient humans that birthed what we now call civilization. Larger and larger bands of humans came together for celestial celebrations or seasonal exchange of goods, sometimes under the influence of psychedelics. They tended to stay in one place rather than continue traveling in roving parties across the land, which cemented tools as integral to human prosperity over our history after countless iterations.
Thoreau, McLuhan, and Innis all realize the same truism that Postman postulates: “Technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality, and that such ways are the key to understanding diverse forms of social and mental life.” To speak about technological changes with any credibility or authority, we must again realize that different cultural setups will garner different technological outcomes, even with the same technology. The German philosopher Karl Marx had a perfect aphorism for this unique dynamic: “The hand-loom gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, unveiled his Six Laws of Technology for the first time at the Society for the History of Technology’s annual meeting.
The First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
By this, he means “technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.”
All of Kranzberg’s laws are valuable to any critical user of technology, but if each and every person can start with the First Law, any curious mind will see technology with both eyes wide open.
Postman divides human culture into three distinct types: tool-using, technocracy, and technopoly. Until the seventeenth century, we could classify all cultures as tool-using. Tools back then were usually in the form of problem-solving mechanisms for use in physical life (e.g., waterwheels, windmills), or to serve as an homage to literal higher powers (e.g., cathedrals) and the connection between humans and the divine (e.g., mechanical clocks). Politics, art, religion, rituals, and even symbolism were not attacked by these tools per se, but were usually used as controlling forces directed toward specific uses.
Tools were usually never given the moniker of autonomous, always bearing the cultural imprint of their times, but we also have to realize that people up until a few hundred years ago were surprisingly sophisticated, in part, because of their shared cultural beliefs. Postman argues: “All tool-using cultures—from the technologically most primitive to the most sophisticated—are theocratic, or if not, unified by some metaphysical theory.”
Read “Our Sacred-Scientific, Psychedelic Future“
What Technocracy Has Wrought
“The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” —Alfred North Whitehead
Some tool-using cultures officially transitioned to the first technocracies in the late seventeenth century with the death of Galileo, the birth of Isaac Newton, and the official recognition of Copernicus and Kepler’s life’s work showing that the Earth is, indeed, not the center of the cosmos.
“That moral center had allowed people to believe that the earth was the stable center of the universe and therefore that humankind was of special interest to God,” says Postman. “After Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, the Earth became a lonely wanderer in an obscure galaxy in some hidden corner of the universe, and this left the Western world to wonder if God had any interest in us at all.”
Postman notes how there was a clear edict for the separation of moral and intellectual values. In the battle of the minds and the future of meaning, physics, scripture, and theology all had reckonings with what reality was supposed to be. So much so that we began pondering if there was a reason for existence at all.
Tools are revered for their influence on culture, even their seamless integration into them. Postman says this was probably true in tool-using cultures, but when we live in a technocracy, the tools are much more pernicious and attack culture: “They bid to become the culture. Consequently, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”
The modern technocracies of the West have their roots in the medieval European world, from which there emerged three great and significant inventions in creating a new relationship between tools and culture: “the mechanical clock, which provided a new conception of time; the printing press with movable type, which attacked the epistemology of the oral tradition; the telescope, which attacked the fundamental propositions of Judeo-Christian theology.”
The seemingly unlimited supply of progress we see around us, in today’s future world, was born in technocracy’s beginnings. Tradition be damned, although it remained the only universal societal framework these technologies could graf themselves on to before bursting out with the promise of new freedoms. Postman says there was no time to look back or contemplate what was being lost: “Technocracy also sped up the world. We could get places faster, do things faster, accomplish more in a shorter time. Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph.”
Postman goes on by summarizing that two distinct thought worlds were trading paint in the race to see who would mold the future of society: “And so two opposing world-views—the technological and the traditional—coexisted in uneasy tension. The technological was the stronger, of course, but the traditional was there—still functional, still exerting influence, still too much alive to ignore.”
Read “History Isn’t Made by Great Men“
Technopoly Is Totalitarian Technocracy
“Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.” —Paul Goodman
Aldous Huxley’s transformative and groundbreaking book Brave New World (1932) introduces us to a different type of dystopian society. One in which agency and free will are in question due, in part, to the drug soma. Postman says another lesson to be learned from Huxley is how society is taken over by the totality of technological change:
“Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It doesn’t even make them unpopular.
It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements.
Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy.”
Around the turn of the century is when the first technopolies really began forming, the first being Henry Ford’s motor vehicle empire in the United States with its commitment to being the biggest car manufacturer in the world. Its revolutionary use of assembly lines and the principles of scientific management are arguably what catapulted it to stratospheric levels of success.
In a technopoly, workers were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. Instead, technique of any kind can do our thinking for us. Postman opines,
“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.”
The sparse information stream that created a schism of scarcity has been completely upended. Instead, we are overwhelmed by information, creating a schism of abundance. How humanity navigates the changes in dealing with information glut will be a monumental test in how our epistemic crisis unfolds.
For Postman, there is a striking difference between a technocracy and a technopoly. A technocracy remains tied to some semblance of “theory, meaning, or purpose,” but a technopoly severs that frail connection between information and the values that give life to human existence. Technopoly partly arises after enormous volumes of indiscriminate information appear everywhere, directed at no one, at increasingly high rates of speed. As an elaborate reduction, technopoly turns the aim of human life into “machinery and technique.”
“Technopoly deprives us of the social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual basis for knowing what is beyond belief,” concludes Postman.
Read “Virtual Reality Is Not an Empathy Machine“
So, What Then?
Technology, in a technopoly, has changed friendship, religion, and even the way we think about politics, as well as education and learning—but what are the solutions to some of these problems we have discussed?
Postman says teaching disciplines first as “histories of” a given subject and recognizing the power of semantics, rhetoric, and uses of language would be powerful mechanisms for altering technopoly’s trajectory over the long term.
Each person must decide how to enact these ideas for their own sake, and as part of society, says Postman: “In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”
What Postman is advocating for is to fully wrap our collective heads around the idea that technology must never be accepted as the natural order of things. Every technology, from a COVID test to an electric car to a virtual reality headset to a quantum computer, is a temporal, spatial, cultural, and political time capsule into the conditions, agenda, and philosophy of a given technology. Postman wants us never to forget that a technology’s program, or its reason for being, may not be beneficial for us, and we should remain extra vigilant.
A “technological resistance fighter” will benefit from asking the following seven questions of any nascent technology:
- What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
- Whose problem is it?
- What new problems will be created when solving an old problem?
- Which people and which institutions will be most harmed?
- What changes in language are being enforced/promoted by new technologies? What is being gained? And lost from such changes?
- What shifts in economic and political power are likely to result?
- What alternative uses might be made of a technology?
Individuals and society must reclaim the responsibility we have to create and implement the values that undergird our technologies, while not allowing technopoly’s hold to strengthen. Technopoly’s supremacy over thought, being, psyche, social institutions—and thus, all of us—will not be undone without us taking deliberate steps to fiercely evaluate and re-evaluate whether our technologies actually generate the type of society we value.
Nicholas is a former freelance journalist turned writer and creator of Eclectic Spacewalk. With essays, interviews, podcasts, and video production, Eclectic Spacewalk is a place to analyze the human condition with pragmatic heuristics—always through a global and local “overview effect” lens.
2 thoughts on “This Is Technopoly”
There’s lot’s on interesting observations in this essay, but they seem to somewhat contradictory (which is inevitable when dealing with such complex issues). The statement I find most insightful is ‘The First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”’ Yet, the rest of the essay goes on position technology, and certainly technopoly, in a largely negative (“bad”) valence.
I love how the essay opens with the observation that technological change is “neither additive nor subtractive.” It is just change. Like all change, there are good aspects, bad aspects, and neutral aspects. As the essay acknowledges, the good, the bad, and the neutral are not inherent in the technological change–it is we, with our cultural norms, who value the changes as good, bad, or neutral.
And that’s the rub. The list of questions at the end of the essay can’t be answered in any culturally neutral way. One culture labels a change “a solution” while another labels it “a problem”. (See wicked problems.) Worse, at the moment of introduction of a new technology, the existing cultures evaluating it have no way of understanding its long term impact. And even if they did, the long term impact will be comprised of so many different benefits and drawbacks, how could anyone be confident in deciding whether or not to go forward with the technology. We still don’t know the long term good, bad, and neutral impacts of computers, so how in the world can we make decisions about whether to spur or restrain the technology?
I think an additional problem is that certain kinds of technology are ignored in this analysis: language is a technology; writing is a technology; organizational structures are technologies; democracy is a technology (enabled by the technology of voting); cities are technologies; agriculture is technology. How in the world does one even begin to assess whether writing has caused more benefit than harm? How do nations (which are technologies) decide if nations as instances of organizing technologies cause more benefit than harm?
Finally, describing technopoly as bad contradicts the claim that technology is not good, bad, or neutral. Though the term is never clearly defined in the essay (“a semi-autonomous morphed entity called technopoly—which holds technology supreme, anything getting in the way of limitless growth is akin to blasphemy” is pretty vague), technopoly sounds almost like a religion. And religions are, guess what, technologies as well. And so technopoly, like any religion, like any technology, has good, bad, and neutral aspects. The Catholic Church had totalitarian aspects, so should we have turned away from that technology when it was in its infancy? How do we answer the checklist of questions with regard to the Catholic Church, when different groups will provide wildly different answers.
I think there is great wisdom in this claim: ‘If we view a new technology as ecological, we can begin to see it for what it is, with “both eyes open.”’ Like technologies, ecologies are not good, bad, or neutral. Here’s a thought experiment: Line up all the different kinds of ecologies that have existed since the emergence of life (coarse grain the choices as you see fit). Now order them from best to worst. That’s the problem. There is no neutral way of ranking ecologies. And there’s no neutral way of ranking technologies. What would we do if it were determined that the highest ranking ecologies were the ones with no humans in in them. (Some seriously hold this view; and how can other humans neutrally deny the validity of such a view?)
So, What Then?
While I love highly abstract discussions of technology writ large (ie philosophy of technology), and I think they can provide useful context (eg technologies are like ecologies), they aren’t all that useful for concrete decisions about specific technologies. It’s kind of like how philosophical meta-ethics isn’t all that useful for making concrete ethical decisions in our individual lives. The descriptions of the issues in both cases are too “thick” for the abstractions to be of much use in decision-making.
I guess I’d advise not trying to combine the abstract and the concrete in one essay. I’d also suggest that the real problem here has nothing* to do with technology. The real problem is how to make decisions about wicked problems in a pluralistic society. Some groups absolutely will hold technology supreme. That’s not better, nor worse, than holding nature supreme, or god supreme, or humanity supreme. It’s just different–with different benefits and harms.
Thanks for such a thought-proving essay!
* Of course it has something to do with technology because a decision-making framework for wicked problems is also a technology. 🙂
Good stuff, man.
Wondering if you ever read The Futurological Congress by Stainslaw Lem, or seen the haunting film version of it, The Congress (2013), directed by Ari Folman.
Very much a piece of the Huxley school of soma-induced dystopia, and fits like a glove with your final Postman quote.