Book summary: Technopoly (III)

This is the third part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. You can read parts one and two on this blog. This part covers chapters “The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology”, “The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology”, “Invisible Technologies” and “Scientism”.

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

The Ideology of Machines: Medical Technology

Example of lie detector on p. 92,93. In technopoly, accuracy in insisted on for machinery. The idea embedded in the machine is ignored, no matter how peculiar. People who have lived together for years would know if they get along, but in technopoly subjective knowledge has no official status: it must be confirmed by tests administered by experts. Machines eliminate complexity, doubt and ambiguity. They provide numbers we can see and calculate with. What’s significant about this “magic” is that it directs our attention to the wrong place, and by doing so it evokes wonder, not understanding. We are encouraged to ignore the ideas inside machines, which makes us blind to their ideology. Example of stethoscope in p. 97-99. Two key ideas promoted by the stethoscope: medicine is about the disease, not the patient; what the patient knows is untrustworthy, and what the machine knows, reliable. Another reason for physicians to be estranged from their own judgement: everyone with a headache wants a CAT scan (roughly 60% are unnecessary). They’re done as protection against malpractice suits. Thus medical practice has moved to total reliance on machine-generated information, so have the patients. Also, doctors are reimbursed by insurance based on what they do, not the amount of time spent with a patient. It’s more profitable to do CAT scan than to investigate. They ideas promoted by this domination of technology can be summarised as: Nature is an implacable enemy that can be subdued only by technology means; problems created by technology can only be solved by more technology; medical practice must be focused on disease, not patients (it’s possible to say that the operation/therapy was successful but the patient died); information from the patient cannot be taken as seriously as from a machine.

Does this lead to better medicine? In some cases, yes. Would medicine be better were it not to totally reliant on technology? Yes. very few doctors are satisfied with technology’s stronghold on medicine. [Question: no references to back up that claim? seriously?]

The Ideology of Machines: Computer Technology

McCarthy: “even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs […] it’s too hot in there, it’s too cold in here, and it’s just right in here”. Redefinition of “belief”, simulating an idea is the same as replicating it; most important, rejecting the idea that mind is a biological phenomenon. Part of humans’ intangible life can be simulated by a machine in some respects, but never duplicated. This kind of language is not merely picturesque anthropomorphism: it’s implied that computers have will, intentions or reasons, so humans are relieved of their responsibility over its decisions, something bureaucrats love. “The computer show…” and “The computer has determined…” is technopoly’s equivalent of “It’s God will…”.

Computers have served to strengthen technopoly’s hold to make people believe that technological innovation is synonym with human progress. We have lost confidence in human judgement and subjectivity and devalued the singular capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions and replaced this with faith in the powers of technical calculation. Emphasis on the technological processes and little in the substance. Believing most serious problems (personal and public) are due to lack of fast access to information is nonsense: people dying of starvation, families braking up, mistreated children, crime, etc. Lack of “technological modesty”: if digital computers had been around before the atomic bomb, people would have said the bomb could hot have been invented without it. But it was, and many things are possible without it.

Invisible technologies

This chapter considers mechanisms that act like machines but aren’t normally thought of as part of technopoly’s repertoire. Questions give direction to our thoughts, generate new ideas, venerate old ones, expose facts, hide them. Examples in p. 125,126.

Examples of “statistics gone wild” on p. 129. Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man” explores the malignant role of stats in “measurement” of intelligence. Three points from it: (1) reification (turning an abstract idea into a thing): we use “intelligence” for a variety of human capabilities of which we approve, but if we believe it to be a thing, we’ll believe scientific procedures can locate and measure it; (2) ranking requires a criterion for assigning individuals in a single series; thus we assume that intelligence is not only a thing, but a single thing, located in the brain and accessible to the assignment of a number; (3) this restricts and biases us, but it would go unnoticed because numbers are the ultimate test of objectivity. Fundamental subjectivity will become invisible and the objective number will become reified.

It’s not unreasonable to argue that polling of public opinion is good. Our political leaders must have some information about what we believe to represent us. The problems are:

  1. The forms of the questions condition the answers.

  2. Promoting the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted with the pollster’s questions.

  3. Ignoring (generally) what people know about the subjects they’re queried on.

  4. Shifting responsibility between political leaders and their constituents. Congressmen were expected to use their own judgement about what was in the public interest.

Not all statistics statements are useless, just that like any other technology it tends to go out of control. In technopoly, we tend to believe that only through autonomy of techniques we can achieve our goals. But will we control them or will they control us?

The argument is not with technique, but with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones. When a method of doing things is so associated with an institution that we don’t know what came first, it’s hard to change the institution or even imagine alternative methods for achieving our purposes. So it’s necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they’re good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty.


Scientism is three interrelated ideas that, together, stand as one of the pillars of technopoly: (1) natural sciences provide a way to unlock the secrets of both the human heart and the direction of social life; (2) society can be rationally and humanely reorganisation according to principles social science will uncover, and (3) faith in science can serve as a belief system that gives meaning to life, sense of well-being, morality and even immortality.

Social science bashing in p. 147-155. Social researchers tell their stories essentially for didactic and moralistic purposes, like Buddha, Confucius or Jesus. They never discover anything, only rediscover what people were once told and needed to be told again. So Scientism is the desperate hope, wish and illusory belief that the standardised procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority.

And this is the end of the third part of my summary. The fourth and last one will cover the last two chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”.