Book summary: Technopoly (I)

This is the first part of my summary of the book “Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology”, by Neil Postman. Especially after reading this book, I feel forced to say (and insist on) that this is just my take on this book: it’s subjective and incomplete (parts that I found less interesting, agreed less with or I found less value in I cover less, or not cover at all). That said, it’s not like I agree with everything in my summary, but I found _that _the featured parts were good food for thought.

EDIT: see parts two, three and four on this blog.

The book has an introduction and 11 chapters. This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first two chapters, “The judgement of Thamus” and “From Tools to Technocracy”.


The main argument this book explores is not between humanists and scientists, but between technology and everybody else. Most people believe that technology is a friend. It is a friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most give because its gifts are bountiful. The dark side it that it creates a culture without moral foundation, undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology is both a friend and enemy. The book tries to explain when, how and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy.

The judgement of Thamus

Socrates story (p. 3,4). We can learn from it that it’s a mistake to think that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect: it’s always a blessing and a burden.

Radical technologies create new definitions for old terms, and this happens without us being fully concious of it (e.g. telegraph changed “information”, TV changed “political debate”, “news” and “public opinion”). It’s insidious and dangerous, different from the process of creating new terms. This is what Tamus tried to teach us: technology redefines all the words we live by, and it doesn’t pause to tell us. Or us to ask.

Example of technologies that creates new conceptions of what is real: giving marks in school (first done in 1792). Hard to imagine a number/letter is a tool or technology, or that by using a technology to judge someone’s behaviour we’re doing something peculiar. If a number can be given to the quality of thought, why not to mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence or sanity? Psychologists, sociologists and educators find it quite hard to work without numbers. We believe without numbers we can’t acquire or express authentic knowledge. Not arguing it’s a stupid or dangerous idea, just peculiar (even more so that not so many people find it peculiar). Saying that someone should be doing better work because has a IQ of 134, or that someone has 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo, Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.

Embedded in every tool there’s an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world like this rather than like that (example of clock in p. 14,15). There are “knowledge monopolies” created by important technologies: benefits and deficits not distributed equally (example in p. 9). But it’s not a well-planned conspiracy, as if the winners know well what’s won and lost. Such prejudices are not evident at first, hence one can’t conspire to be a winner. Also, technological change is neither additive or subtractive, but ecological. If you remove caterpillars from a habitat, you don’t get the same without caterpillars, you get a different environment.

What we need to consider about the computer is not efficiency as a teaching tool: we need to know in what ways it’s altering our conception of learning, and how, with TV, it undermines the old idea of school. Need to know if technology changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the power, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience misses the significant question: in what sense new media alters what is meant by religion, church or even god?

These changes are strange and dangerous, and there’s only a dull, even stupid, awareness of what it is. In part because it has no name. The book calls it Technopoly.

From tools to technocracy

One taxonomy of cultures based on their relation to technology: tool-using cultures, technocracies and technopolies. All types can be found on the planet, but the first is disappearing. Until 17th century, all cultures were tool-using, but with considerable variation on the tools available. The main characteristic is that their tools were largely invented for two things: solve a specific and urgent problem of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world of arts, politics, myth, ritual and religion. Tools did not attack (or intended to) dignity or integrity of the culture. Culture actually directed the invention of the tools and limited their uses.

To avoid oversimplification on the definition of tool-using cultures: the quantity of technology is not relevant in the definition; they may be ingenious and productive in solving problems of the physical environment; and they’re not impoverished technologically (may even be surprisingly sophisticated). The name tool-using derives from the relationship between tools and the belief system or ideology. Tools are not intruders, they’re integrated into the culture. We may say tool-using cultures are theocratic or at least unified by some metaphysical theory. Such theory provides order and meaning to existence. It makes it hard for technics to subordinate people to its own needs.

In technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, to some degree, to their development. Tools are not integrated into the culture, they attack it. They bid to become the culture.

Kepler played a role toward the conception of a technocracy: a clear separation of moral and intellectual values, one of the pillars of technocracy. Bacon was the first technocracy man, but it took some time for others to follow: people came to believe that knowledge is power, humanity is capable of progressing, poverty is a great evil, and the life of an average person is as meaningful as any other. It’s not true that God died, but it lost much of its power and meaning, and with it the satisfactions of a culture in which moral and intellectual values were integrated.

And this is the end of the first part of my summary. I’ll post the second one soon, covering chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.