Technopoly, Neil Postman

I love technology. I tell you this, even though it must be obvious to you considering where these words are appearing. I love technology, but I’m not blind to its problems. To those who say technology has no faults, I ask you when was the last time your computer crashed or whatever happened to that grand notion of a “paperless office”? Technology is something between Pandora’s box and Prometheus’ gift; I would not want to live without it because I’ve read history, but I can also imagine an even better world.

Neil Postman may or may not love technology, but he certainly knows its failings. Postman is the author of several books on the interplay between American culture and technology, and his most recent, Technopoly, is in some ways a culmination of his previous efforts. Postman is an educator who is distressed by the state of American education. Instead of simply decrying the fact that schools are changing and moaning for a return to the “good ol’ days,” Postman took the time to understand the nature of the beast, dissect it, and present his conservation strategy. As he states, his idea of getting “back to the basics” is not quite the same as that typically bandied about by politicians and policy makers.

First, the argument. Postman describes what he calls the three stages of how a culture deals with technology: 1) tool-using, 2) technocracy, 3) technopoly. In a tool-using culture, technical improvements are limited to the uses at hand. This differs from the technocracy, where the tools “play a central role in the thought world of the culture.” In the technopoly, tools become the culture. Astute readers may sense a possible linkage here with Alvin Toffler’s three waves of culture detailed in The Third Wave. Toffler views each wave as having a trough and crest, with monumental social impact happening as each wave breaks upon the shore of human culture. Toffler says the reason for the breakdown in our traditional structures today is that we are in the break between the second and third wave. Toffler predicts a time of stability in the future, in which this new wave of culture and technology will have enhanced all of our lives. Postman and Toffler are not exactly foes in their views of the waves of culture, but differ on how we are to approach this change. Toffler implies that it will sort itself out — a type of laissez-faire view of societal change that makes it easier to understand Toffler’s ties to Newt Gingrich. Postman feels we must address the change, or it will destroy us.

To that end, Postman writes a history of the growth of technology in American society. His history centers on the impact of technology on the medical profession — how it saw the progression of each technological stage to the detriment of both doctors and patients. As damning as this evaluation is, he follows it with an even better one from our standpoint: the impact of computers on American culture. As I said before, I love technology, and computer technology most of all, but it was impossible not to follow Postman’s clear and reasoned analysis of the computer’s impact on society.

Had Postman ended here, having formulated his theory and verified it with examples, the book would have been simply interesting, but Postman follows it with a suggested course of action. It is unsurprising that, as an educator, his solutions center on this area of society, but he states that his suggestions could never be implemented without being supported in the political and legal arenas, to name two. Postman proposes a goal for American education — no longer, he says, can we simply train people for employment (the current state of education), but we must instill in people a purpose. His proposed goal is the betterment of humanity. To achieve this goal, he suggests that we get back to the basics in our schools, but by this he means the study of the underlying assumptions of our culture rather than just basic skills. That is, he posits a curriculum that includes the history of every subject as part of that subject, including the history (or ideology) of history itself. Only by understanding how we came to be in the place we stand now, will we be able to move forward.

Only a few days before I finished reading Technopoly, Microsoft and MCI announced an initiative to get every public school a presence on the Internet. While it is a generous offer, we should examine the purpose of it all. How exactly will this aid our educational goals? I love technology and I’m bullish on the prospect of the interactive properties of the Internet to help bring about a new form of thinking, critical Americans (especially as opposed to the last mass media technology that came about, television), but that does not mean that the implementation of the technology does not need to be evaluated. And this, in a nutshell, is what Postman is about. I’ve probably done a major disservice to Postman in summarizing so much of his treatise here, but I hope that it has been sufficiently intriguing that it actually got you to thinking. I suggest as a follow-up that you try the text itself or some of the works listed in the bibliography. It is what I’ll be doing.

[Finished 19 July 1996]

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