A Critique of Neil Postman’s Presumptions Underlying “Technopoly”
By Source, Fair use
The argument of whether technology is a negative force in society is an old argument rehashed many times. Neil Postman’s “Technopoly” focuses on the concept that society, specifically culture, is being damaged by technology. Postman founds his ideas on several major assumptions that are introduced in the first chapter of his novel. These assumptions are the guiding force through which Postman identifies the negative effects of technology on individuals, society, and culture. These observations, while having merit, are problematic due to their highly subjective focus. While Postman acknowledges that technology provides benefits as well as problems, he assumes several concepts that are at contrary to the historical references that he provides as evidence.
Postman relates his assumptions concerning technology in a narrative form based on the ancient story of Thamus concerning the gift of writing from the Egyptian God, Theuth. Postman’s first assumption concerning technology is based on his interpretation of the reasoning behind Thamus’ reluctance to accept the gift of writing:
…writing is not a neutral technology whose good or harm depends on the uses made of it. He knows that the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself — that is, that its functions follow from its form (Postman, 2011).
Beyond the fact that this story is highly interpretable, Postman’s view is that the structure of the technology allows its functions to follow. Postman relates this idea stating:
…once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is — that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open (Postman, 2011).
What is uncomfortable in Postman’s assumption concerning the function of technology is the fact that he has dressed it in a “Frankenstein persona,” which removes human involvement or diminishes the autonomy and decision making when adopting technology. Postman’s assumption is that once this technology is released, it acts of its own accord with no control over it. This autonomy may be true in the case of the wheel. At the time, when the wheel was invented, no one would have thought of an automobile. This view is superficial and unrealistic because it is creating a persona for something that is completely within the sphere of control of the manipulators of the technology.
Similarly, the internet is a communication technology that floods society with information and the positive or negative impact depends on the users of the technology. The use of the internet is what is in question, not the actual technology itself. The actual structure of the internet has been in place since the late 1950s and was being tested and utilized in the 1960s. The early uses of the internet were for national security and communication during war. The advent of electronic communications beginning in the 1980s would provide lasting cultural and social impacts. The advances in information technology were not the natural result of the technology growing of its own accord but rather the compilation and utilization of prior knowledge by humans which allowed these breakthroughs to advance. The advancements in silicon transistors did not build the home computer but rather the use of this knowledge by people like Steve Wozniak who used prior knowledge to create the Apple computer which was arguably the most significant advance in microcomputers (Biography, 2014). Perhaps the better argument for technology is that society needs more training in ethics and awareness of potential issues with knowledge usage rather than looking at the technology in a fearful aspect.
Postman however continues with his presumptions concerning technology when he describes how the meaning of concepts are lost as new definitions are created and old definitions are altered.
…writing will change what is meant by the words “memory” and “wisdom.”… This judgment we must take to heart, for it is a certainty that radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and that this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it. ..New things require new words. But new things also modify old words, words that have deep-rooted meanings (Postman, 2011).
Postman posits that the meanings of words are based in deep-rooted understanding which has developed over time. This is really a semantic argument which has very little proof to support it. Just because the term “political-debate” has been altered to incorporate visual media such as television does not mean that the word has lost meaning. This is a weak argument because it is based on an intangible concept which cannot possibly be known. For example, to say that the term media has been altered and lost meaning because it is now social media is an impossible idea to show. For one, there is no way to show the deep-rooted meaning that Postman discusses. What is the deep-rooted meaning of media, or any word for that matter? This argument is also counter intuitive because Postman is viewing the concept of words being invented or altered in a purely negative fashion. The reality is that naming interactive media, “social media” is more exact and provides better meaning than simply calling it media due to the fact that it more accurately describes the form of media. Most importantly Postman disregards cultural adaptation language to fit inventions which are built on prior knowledge and advancement.
A final criticism of Postman’s assumptions has to do with his reference to the formation of an undeserving elite group or the wise people resulting from technology. Postman states:
…Thamus warns that the pupils of Theuth will develop an undeserved reputation for wisdom. He means to say that those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence (Postman, 2011, p. 149).
This is a strong argument for this elite group’s existence, one which is undeniable. There definitely exists a digital divide between the individuals who understand and utilize the technology and those who do not have access to it. However, Postman’s assertion that the divide exists as a result of new technologies is perhaps misplaced due to the fact that this divide has always existed in one form or another. Dominant groups have always coveted knowledge and its use (Macionis, 2011). Slaves, throughout history were often denied access to education (Macionis, 2011). The right or wrong of this situation is not in question as much as the idea that Postman presents this argument as evidence that technology is damaging to society and culture. A counter argument to this position would be the fact that because of the technology of the internet, there is greater access to the knowledge than there ever was in the past. To say that the individuals who possess the knowledge are given authority and prestige over those without this knowledge is a bizarre argument considering the fact that this has been the norm throughout history. Specialized knowledge (for better or worse) has always placed the possessors in prominent positions. Doctors, lawyers, craftsmen have historically been given varying positions of wisdom and authority due to their specialized skills. It is interesting how Postman sees the divide of knowledge as an unfair division but this is again not a failing of the technology or an impact of it. Rather, the division of knowledge and technology is more related to society and the manner in which humans conduct themselves socially with regard to materialism.
While Neil Postman provides an interesting view of technology, these views shroud his fundamental assumptions concerning knowledge, society, and the ethical use of technology. It is evident, from an examination of his opening chapter, that Postman holds deep rooted values in concepts such as free knowledge. As well, Postman also seems to hold some misguided notions pertaining to technology and its impacts on society. While his book is compelling because of the many obvious negative impacts that one can readily see with regard to technology and how it is used; these views are superficial and derivative of many arguments such as blaming the gun or car manufacturer for deaths resulting from their products.
Biography. (2014). Steve Wozniak Biography. Retrieved from Biography: http://www.biography.com/people/steve-wozniak-9537334
Macionis, J. (2011). Society: The Basics, Eleventh Edition. Prentice Hall, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Postman, N. (2011). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology . (K. Edition, Ed.) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.