Recall that Technocracy concerns individuals who through their knowledge and power manage a society—sometimes coercing it with its wishes. This coercion is accomplished through Technology which is the practical application of knowledge in order to accomplish a task through tools constructed. These two lead to Technopoly which is a state of culture and mind where technology is deified; the culture finds its satisfaction in technology and thus takes its orders from it.
In this chapter, Postman accentuates the movers and shakers who embraced old technologies in order to make new ones and thus change our world forever which is possible only through the application of ideas.
According to Postman, James Watts and Adam Smith were pivotal in breaking free from medieval thought into the modern era. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine (1765) with its practical energy and technical skills replaced the medieval manufacture (i.e., things made by hand) and forever changed the material and psychic environment of Western civilization. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations justified the transformation of small-scale, personalized skilled labor to a large-scale, impersonal mechanized production. He argued that the key to wealth was not land but money and provided the principle of the self-regulating market. In a technocracy (individuals who through their knowledge and power manage a society) the “unseen hand” eliminates the incompetent and rewards those who cheaply produce goods people want.
Other men like Richard Arkwright who developed the factory system (1780) for his cotton spinning mills, or Edmund Cartwright whose concept of the power loom (1806) revolutionized the textile industry by replacing skilled laborers with workers who merely kept the machines operating.
Inevitably machines to make machines came to fruition and are illustrative of the 19th century thirst for invention where the “how” of invention (i.e., the practicality and profit it produced) muted the “why” of its use (i.e., the implications of what it means to humanly flourish) where people became only a means to an end (i.e., “progress” at what cost?).
This revolution leveled the playing field between the Elites and the Masses, for now the new “Royalty” was not inherited but was earned through “smarts and guts”. Moreover, the speed of life now trumped the contemplative life and the “Old Ways” were seen as obsolete—they were to be kept private. Does this sound familiar today? This arrogance of the present and disdain for the past is not new.
Postman notes several reasons for why Technopoly came to prominence in America. First, the American character was formed by the wonder of the land and ever changing landscapes which linked the idea of newness with improvement. This lent itself to a view that the impossible is possible and thus constraints on this idea were frowned upon.
Second, our genius and audacity in the likes of Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, etc. were labeled as “Robber Barons” for through their inventions America’s past was eradicated. These men created the twentieth century and saw technological innovation as king, thus anything from the past that stands in the way of “progress” is not worth preserving. In other words, the future need not be tied to the past.
Third, our love of luxuries replaced every Old World belief, habit, or tradition with a technological alternative; prayer was replaced by penicillin, familial roots were replaced by mobility, reading was replaced by television, restraint was replaced by immediate gratification, sin replaced by psychotherapy, political ideology was replaced through popular “scientific” polling.
Fourth, new beliefs trumped old beliefs were Nietzsche pronounced that God is dead, Darwin popularized naturalism as means to explain origins, Marx viewed history as deterministic and thus out of our hands, Freud held that our traditional views must be abandoned in order to understand ourselves, John Watson the founder of behaviorism believed that free will was an illusion, Einstein held that there was no absolute way to judge anything and everything was relative.
This century helped us lose confidence in our beliefs yet what could be counted on was our technology. Thus, for these well-known reasons Americans were better prepared to take on the creation of Technopoly more than anyone else.