Book summary: Technopoly (IV)

This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. It covers the two final chapters, “The Great Symbol Drain” and “The Loving Resistance Fighter”. You can see parts one, two and three in this blog.

The Great Symbol Drain

Examples of “blasphemous” ads in p. 164-165. It’s not blasphemy but trivialisation conducted by the commercial enterprise, against which there can’t be laws. The adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else, and thus religious or national symbols are made impotent quickly, drained of sacred or serious connotations. [Question: The US has stayed quite religious…] But mass-advertising is not the cause of the great symbol drain: such cultural abuse could not have occurred without technologies to make it possible and a world-view to make it desirable. The erosion of symbols is followed by loss of narrative.

Symbols are made meaningless by frequent invocation and indiscriminate contexts in which they’re used. Sometimes the argument is made that the promiscuous use of serious symbols is a form of irreverence, the antidote to excessive or artificial piety. But there’s nothing in the commercial exploitation that suggests that excess piety is a vice: business is too serious for that (example in p. 167).

Two main points: (1) cultures must have narratives (the alternative is living without meaning, the ultimate negation of life), and (2) narratives are given form by symbols that call for respect, even devotion.

In Education, we improve the education of our youth by improving the “learning technologies”. To the question “why should we do this?” the answer is “to make learning more efficient and more interesting”. The answer is considered adequate, since in technopoly efficiency and interest need no justification. But it’s usually not noticed that the answer is about means, not ends. It offers no way to educational philosophy, and even blocks it by focusing on the how, rather than why. What do we believe education is for? One discouraging answer is to get persevering students a good job, or to compete with the Japanese or Germans to be the first economy. Neither is grand or inspiring and suggests that the US is not a culture, but an economy.

The technopoly story is progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost. It doesn’t have moral centre. It puts it its place efficiency, interest and economic advance, and promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells instead a life of skills, technological expertise, ecstasy of consumption. The purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing technopoly.

The Loving Resistance Fighter

The response to living in a technopoly can be divided in two: what individuals can do and what the culture can do. For individuals, can’t give a how-to (that would be what “experts” do), just a principle: be a loving resistance fighter. “Loving” means keeping the symbols and narratives close to your heart, despite the confusion, errors and stupidities. As for “resistance fighter”, people who can resist technopoly are those who:

  • don’t pay attention to polls unless they know the questions asked, and why

  • refuse to accept efficiency as pre-eminent goal in human relations

  • have freed themselves from the magical power of numbers, don’t regard calculation as an appropriate substitute for judgement, or precision as synonym of truth

  • refuse to allow psychology or other “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense

  • are at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and don’t confuse information with understanding

  • don’t regard the aged as irrelevant

  • take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honour, and to “reach out and touch someone” expect the person to be in the same room

  • take great narratives of religion seriously and don’t believe that science is the only system of thought capable of truth

  • know the difference between sacred and profane, and don’t wink at tradition for modernity’s sake

  • admire technological ingenuity and don’t think it’s the highest form of human achievement

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and therefore require scrutiny, criticism and control.

What the culture can do: the best way to achieve a revolution is through school. Even though education is itself a technology, this is persistently scrutinised, criticised and modified.

The most important contribution schools can make is to give a sense of coherence in their studies, sense of meaning and interconnectedness. Modern secular education fails because it has no moral, social or intellectual centre. No set of ideas permeates the whole curriculum. It doesn’t even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it’s someone who has “skills” (a technocrat’s ideal: a person without commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills).

It’s obvious that schools cannot restore religion to the centre of the life of learning, no one would take “learning for the greater glory of god” seriously. Some people would have us stress love of country as a unifying principle, but experience has shown that this invariably translates into love of government, in practice indistinguishable from Soviet or Chinese education. Others would put “emotional health” as the core of the curriculum, but that’d make a curriculum irrelevant since only “self-knowledge” is considered worthwhile. It’s hard to suggest a theme for a diverse, secularised population, but the theme from Jacob Kronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (the story of Humanity’s creativeness trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance and disorder) is proposed. That would require joining art and science, past and present (as it’s a continuous story).

Virtues of adopting ascent of Humanity as a scaffolding: it doesn’t require changing the list of subjects much; it’s a theme that can begin in the earliest grades and extend through college; provides a point of view to understand the meaning of subjects (each subject would be a “battleground” of intellectual struggle that has taken and still takes place). The curriculum itself may be seen as a celebration of human intelligence and creativity, not a meaningless collection of diploma requirements. And the theme of ascent of Humanity gives a non-technical, non-commercial definition of education. Becoming educated means being aware of origins and growth of knowledge, to learn how to participate, even as listener, in that ascent. It’s an idea- and coherence-centred education, that stresses history, scientific mode of thinking, disciplined use of language, knowledge of arts and religion, and the continuity of the human enterprise.

History is in some ways the central discipline. It’s not really one subject, but all subjects have history. Teaching biology today without teaching what we knew or thought we knew is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product, and deprives students of a sense of meaning of what and how we know. Children would thus begin to understand that knowledge is not a fixed thing, but a stage in human development with past and future. Semantics should be taught, and would give the capability of critical thought (a reading test doesn’t invite to ask whether or not what’s written is true; or if it is, what is has to do with anything).

Finally, two indispensable subjects to understand where we came from:

  1. History of technology, so students understand the relations between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so they begin informed conversations about where technology takes us and how.

  2. Religion, with painting, music, technology, architecture, literature and science intertwined. Specifically, course on comparative religion. Deal with religion as expression of human creativeness to answer fundamental questions. This course would be descriptive, not promoting any religion.

To summarise, all subjects would be seen as a stage in humanity’s historical development. There should be no illusion that this education will bring the thrust of the tech-world to a halt, but it will help begin and sustain serious conversation to distance ourselves from it and criticise and modify it.