Book summary: Technopoly (II)

This is the second part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman (see the first one on this blog). It covers chapters “From Technocracy to Technopoly”, “The Improbable World” and “The Broken Defenses”.

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

From Technocracy to Technopoly

By the end of the 18th century, technocracy was well underway. The greatest invention of the 19th was the idea of invention itself. We had learned how to invent things, and why became less important. The idea that if something could be done, should, was born in 19th century and along with it, a belief in all principles through which invention succeeds: objectivity, efficiency, expertise, standardisation, measurement and progress.

Technocracy gave the idea of progress, and necessarily loosened our bonds with tradition. Technocracy filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organisation. It also speeded up the world and turned time into an adversary technology could defeat. Citizens of technocracies knew that science and technology didn’t provide philosophies by which to live and clung to their fathers’ philosophies. The opposing world-views (technological and traditional) coexisted in tension.

Technopoly eliminated one of those thought-worlds. It did so not by making them illegal, immoral or unpopular, but invisible and therefore irrelevant by redefining religion, art, family, politics, history, truth, privacy, intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly is a totalitarian technocracy.

In 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick W. Taylor, contains the first explicit and formal outline of assumptions of the thought-world of technopoly. These include the beliefs that the primary, if not only, goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technology calculation is in all respects superior to human judgement; that human judgement can in fact not be trusted (for it is ambiguous and complex); that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured doesn’t exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided or conducted by experts. Workers would have to abandon any traditional rules of thumb, and in fact were relieved of any responsibility to think at all. Led to the idea that techniques of any kind can do our thinking for us, which is among the basic principles of technopoly.

The Improbable World

In the Middle Ages, people believed in the authority of their religion no matter what. Today, in the authority of our science, because the world is incomprehensible to most of us and it’s hard to keep a comprehensive and consistent picture of the world.

Information being the new god of culture solves the information scarcity problem, but says nothing about information gluttony. It’s strange that few have noticed. The problem in the Middle East, South Africa or Northern Ireland, or with starvation or crime rates is not lack of information. Yet, technopolists insist that the world needs more information. Information is elevated to a metaphysical status: it’s both the means and ends of human creativity.

One way to define technopoly is a society with an inoperable information immune system (cultural AIDS). That’s why it’s possible to say almost anything without contradiction provided you begin with “a study has shown” or “scientists now tell us that”. And it’s why in technopoly there can be no transcendent sense of purpose or meaning, no cultural coherence. Information is dangerous if there’s no higher purpose it serves.

The presumed close connection among information, reason and usefulness began to lose its legitimacy toward mid-19th century with telegraph. This created the idea of context-free information, ie. the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social or political decision-making and action. Technopoly’s milieu is one with damaged ties between information and human purpose: information appears indiscriminately directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and high speeds, disconnected from theory, meaning or purpose.

It’s a world in which the idea of human progress has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but no accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies.

The Broken Defenses

Technopoly is the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes orders from technology. One way of defining technopoly is “what happens to a society when defenses against information glut have broken down”. A society needs to remove or protect from information, like an organism protects itself from unwanted (incompatible?) cell growth. [Question: what does this mean in a globalised world with so many migrants?]

Social institutions do that by denying people access to information, but mainly by assigning the weight/value one must give to information. Example of court of law (no personal opinions, no mention of previous convictions, etc.) in p. 73. Schools have a curriculum, implying that what is outside of it, a serious student ought not think about. Together with family and political party, they are a culture’s information immune system. The most imposing institutions are religion and state. They manage information through myths and theories about fundamental questions.

Theories are (or lead to) oversimplifications. That is their function: to oversimplify to allow people to organise, weight and exclude information. [Question: how does this relate to “not taking sides” (staying in “the middle ground”)?]

The peril of trusting social, moral and political affairs to bureaucrat is great, as a bureaucrat is indifferent to both content and totality of a human problem. “I have no responsibility for the human consequence of my decisions, only for the efficiency of my part of the bureaucracy, which must be maintained at all costs”.

Experts in technopoly claim dominion not only over technological matters, but also social, psychological and moral. There’s nothing that hasn’t been technicalised and relegated to the control of experts. The role of an expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, eliminate what has no bearing of a problem, and use the rest to assist solving it. This works very well for technical problems (rockets, sewers). Less well when technology and human purposes might conflict, like architecture and medicine. Disastrous for situations that cannot be solved by technological means and where efficiency is irrelevant, like education, family, law, etc.

In technopoly, experts have the charisma of priestliness. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity. They call sin “social deviance”, evil “psychopathology”. Sin and evil disappear because can’t be measured or objectified, and thus not be dealt with by experts. The rest of the book explains why it cannot work, and the pain and consequences of trying.

And this is the end of the second part of my summary. The next part will cover chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.