In this chapter of Technopoly, Postman hitchhikes on Plato’s Phaedrus a story about king Thamus of Upper Egypt who before the god Theuth, the inventor of many good things (e.g., number, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing), beseeches the king to make these inventions available to Egyptians. One such invention was writing. Theuth understands this as a great tool to improve the memory and to acquire wisdom. Thamus’ response is insightful:
“…the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it…you who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.” (Pgs.3-4)
Postman hits on a vein of profound truth we in our age are confronted with. It’s the view that information equals knowledge and that knowledge equals wisdom (which is the proper application of knowledge).
While Thamus understands the deficiencies to memory writing would and have proven to bring, he makes two mistakes. First, he mistakenly thinks that writing would only be a burden to society. Second, he fails to see the many benefits writing provides. His failure is one of depth perception for every technology is both a burden and a blessing to society.
From this Postman argues that technologies have both strengths and weaknesses, that new technologies provide one thing and undo another (e.g., the horse and buggy vs. the automobile), that every culture is confronted with new technologies and need to wisely consider their pros and cons. Moreover, he affirms that when a new technology comes out it will play out the purpose for which it was created and our task is to understand its design, as we embrace it with eyes wide open. Among the many technologies Postman considers, three of interest are: the computer, the printing press, and the television.
Our computers have brought about great benefits in our abilities to communicate, educate, and conduct commerce. They have increased the power of large scale organizations to conduct its purposes such as the military, the banks, the airlines, and also the IRS. A massive negative, in my view, that the computer has brought to the masses is the proliferation of greater institutional control. For example, our spending habits are digitized through the swipe of our credit cards, through this action companies are empowered to solicit their unwanted product through marketing agencies via junk mail. As our privacy increasingly vanishes we are reduced to a mere number.
The printing press was created by a devout German Catholic, Johannes Gutenberg, and through it spawned a revolution in the production of books which fostered the rapid development in the sciences, arts and religion through the transmission of texts. This technology was also instrumental to subvert Roman Catholicism by the Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther. I don’t suspect Gutenberg was for the Reformers agenda.
The television which has brought about a wonderful way to divert ourselves from the grind of daily life through movies, documentaries and sporting events, has also had a subversive effect on the printed page. The printed page emphasizes logic (proper thought), sequence, discipline and more, but the television nonsense, passivity, slothfulness, and more. Postman’s key thought for this chapter I quote:
“New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop…something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and stupid awareness of what it is—in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly.”