Summary of CHAPTER 2: FROM TOOLS TO TECHNOCRACY (Pgs.21-39) 

 

Before we proceed in this chapter summary, defining three terms will aid our understanding of this book’s subject.  First, there’s Technology which has to do with knowledge that is practically applied through scientific and mathematical principles.  It is a means of accomplishing a task using technical methods, or knowledge.[1]  Second, there’s Technocracy which concerns individuals who through their knowledge and power manage a society—sometimes coercing it with its wishes.[2]  Lastly, there’s Technopoly which according to Neal Postman is a state of culture and mind where technology is deified; the culture finds its satisfaction in technology and takes its orders from it.[3]

In this chapter Postman begins by pointing out how throughout time scholars have tended to encapsulate eras by taxonomies (I.e., categories, nomenclatures, etc.), such as the Stone Age, the Iron Age, and the Steel Age, or the Industrial Revolution or Post-industrial Revolution.  Again, some have written of Oral Cultures, Typographic Cultures, and Electronic Cultures.  In the 1960’s one wrote of the Age of Gutenberg compared to the Age of Electronic Communication.  These categories are coined in order to capture the character of an age or a culture.

As a means to clarify where we’ve been and where we’re at, Postman classifies cultures into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies.  Each type of culture can be found somewhere on the planet.  He notes that until the 17th century all cultures were tool-making cultures.

These tools were created to first solve problems of the physical life (e.g., the use of water power, windmills, etc.) and second to serve the symbolic world of (e.g., art, politics, religion, etc.).  These were created and governed by beliefs that gave said tools the boundaries for their use.  For example, in military technology the use of the Samurai sword and the crossbow were controlled by spiritual views and social customs (Pg.23-24).  Depending on the situation, the samurai warrior was to either use his katana (long sword) or his wakizashi (short sword) and the knight was prohibited or allowed to use the crossbow.

Postman continues explaining that not only do worldviews govern the use of tool making cultures, but also how new tools forever irreversibly change cultures.  Among the examples used, three I note are: the rifle which replaced the bow and practically eradicated a culture; the mechanical clock which changed our view of time and thus how industry is conducted; and the telescope which changed our view of the heavens and put Christian theology into question (Pgs.26-34).

Postman further notes that Francis Bacon understood how the printing press changed literature, how gun powder changed warfare, and how the magnet changed navigating the seas (Pgs.36-37).  At the end of the day, for Bacon there was a direct link between: invention and progress.  This is noteworthy because that same sentiment rules 21st century Western civilization.  Sometimes it’s a friend, and sometimes it’s a foe.  Consumer beware.  

[1] Langenscheidt’s Pocket Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, © 1997 Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

[2] Ibid.

[3] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Pg. 71, © 1992 by Neil Postman, a Borzoi Book, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.  

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Summary of CHAPTER 1: THE JUDGEMENT OF THAMUS (Pgs.3-20)     

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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.”

Book Summary__ TECHNOPOLY: The Surrender of Culture to Technology By Neil Postman

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Whether or not it draws on new scientific research,

technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science

PAUL GOODMAN, New Reformation 

Prescript

It’s no secret that western civilization and the global community are enamored with and have benefitted much from the many technological advances from the last century.   The most popular technological marvel is that pocket computer we carry around called the “smart-phone”.   To call an inanimate machine “smart” seems ironically “stupid” because persons, not machines design the input and output of the parts.  People think and do, machines just do.

Historically, man-made machines (tools) always attempt to make life better, safer, and the unthinkable (to most of us) possible.  While there is much good that comes from human ingenuity, it’s also accompanied by a great down side most of us don’t consider.

The late critic and communications theorist, Neil Postman who chaired the Department of Communication Arts at New York University in, TECHNOPOLY: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, considers how historically the inventions of man have shaped the rise and fall of empires, changed the ways in which commerce is conducted, and how society has been positively and negatively impacted by them.  The wisdom in this book is as applicable today as when it was first authored in 1992.

INTRODUCTION: Pgs. Xi-xii

Postman in his introduction explains that most people think that technology is a staunch friend because first, it’s made life easier, cleaner and longer, and secondly because of its lengthy, intimate and inevitable relationship it has with culture.  But technology is a friend that asks for trust and obedience without inviting a close scrutiny of its consequences.

The fact is that this friend has a dark side where its’ uncontrolled growth has resulted in the destruction of the vital sources of our humanity.  Technology has created a culture void of a moral foundation; it’s undermined certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.  In a nutshell, technology is both a friend and foe.