CHAPTER 4: THE IMPROBABLE WORLD (Pgs.56-70)
In this chapter Postman points out that Technopoly has a vigorous ally called “social science”. He uses a thought experiment to demonstrate that Americans will believe most anything that is preceded by “Studies show…” regardless of how ridiculous it may be. This is done by stating a prestigious university, stating a study that “doctor so and so conducted” and the rest is assumed to be credible.
Like those in the Middle Ages who believed in the authority of their religion, Postman holds that twentieth century people believe in the authority of their science, no matter what. The reason for this is that the world in which we live is for most of us incomprehensible and thus any new facts presented are uncritically accepted. The reason for this is Americans have no unifying worldview from which to access logically truth from error, contradictions from realities.
The Scaffolding of the Old World Replaced by the Framework of Progress
The theological scaffolding that buttressed the belief system of so many and gave it a unifying Christian worldview—meaning to life, was supplanted in the Middle Ages by the instruments of Progress who replaced the theological with the scientific and technological with reliable information about nature and thus end ignorance and superstition. These technocracies delivered real progress in pharmacology, sanitation, transportation, and communication. These events were fueled by information—which became the god of culture reinterpreting the structure of nature and the human soul.
Like today, so it was back then that the flood of information was viewed as a friend, not a foe. It was uncritically viewed as the key to solve human pain and suffering and yet the human plight really was not solved. That is, very few personal and social political problems result from the lack of information. Yet, information is what the progressive “Technopolist” affirms to be the “savior” of humanity. But information “glut” as Postman puts it, does not aid us to reflect on the pros and cons of what’s ahead. Information does not equal knowledge, knowledge does not equal wisdom and reflection is what’s required to distinguish these human realities.
The origins of information glut did not begin with the age of computers but with Gutenberg‘s old wine press which he converted into a printing machine with movable type. Postman writes, “Fifty years after the press was invented, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously been unavailable to the average person…” Subjects like law, agriculture, politics, botany, linguistics, pediatrics, and more were available in book form.
In order to control the flow of said information schools became increasingly the bureaucratic structure for legitimizing certain flows of information and discrediting other aspects of it. This impacted the areas of science, theology, philosophy and politics where the masses had access to knowledge that was historically unprecedented.
Whether the printed page came from Martin Luther (which spawned the Protestant Reformation), or it came from the likes of Kant and Hume (which sped up the “age of reason”), or it came from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (which caused the birth of a nation), no one can question its’ seismic effects on human history.
Moreover, when the printed page (through Newspapers) and the telegraph (with its Morse code) were combined, it removed space from the equation of getting information to the masses, converted it into a commodity (something to be bought and sold regardless of the usefulness or meaning) which resulted in the idea of context-less information. Here, the fortunes accumulated by newspapers did not depend on the quality or utility of the information, but rather on the quantity and speed of getting it to the masses.
Again, the telegraph and printed page served to prepare people for the photographic revolution where a picture was worth a thousand words, and language was supplemented by new imagery as the dominant means for understanding and testing reality.
These three modes of information—the telegraph, the printed page and the photo) spawned a new definition of information, Postman writes:
“Here was information that rejected the necessity of inter-connectedness, proceeded without context, argued for instancy against historical continuity, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence” (pg.69).
These three stages in the information revolution were followed by broadcasting and fifth by computer technology. Each communicated new forms of information, never before amounts of it imagined, and it increased the speed at which the information was distributed.
What does this mean?
So much information from so many angles through the above mentioned means around the globe (e.g., books, radio, television, advertisements, computer chips, etc.) finds its way into our homes. Postman among other things concludes that:
“Like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, we are awash in information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom. Information has become a source of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems…We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend…(without realizing it can also be our foe)” (Pg69-70)
The setting under which Technopoly flourishes is between information and human purpose; here information appears without discretion with no particular audience in mind and is disconnected from theory, meaning, or any design.