The Tyranny Of Technology


By Neil Postman

Knopf -- 222pp -- $21

Almost from the beginning, technology has been a central character in the

American historical drama. As the young nation came of age, machines smashed old limits and conquered new frontiers. The railroad wended its way from sea to shining sea, the telegraph annihilated distance, the light bulb pushed back the darkness. Inventors such as Eli Whitney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas

Edison were the Prosperos of this brave New World.

Early on, too, there were those who saw doom in America's rapid

industrialization. In 1851, novelist Herman Melville described in loving detail the technology that made American whaling ships perhaps the most highly

specialized and commercially successful machines of their time. But he put a

madman at the helm of the Pequod and had him take the ship to the bottom of the sea. Today, social critic Neil Postman might argue, the crew is blissed out on The Simpsons, Ahab is playing computer games on his Mac, and the ship itself -- technology -- has taken charge. America, Postman says, has become the first nation to regard technology not as the means to an end but as the end itself.

Postman calls this new milieu, in which technology monopolizes every aspect

of life, technopoly. The nation, he argues, now looks to science, technology,

and a blind pursuit of efficiency as its primary sources of cultural meaning and authority. Lost are the traditional moral underpinnings provided by institutions such as religion and the state. Postman doesn't argue against technology per se; few would listen if he did. Rather, he seeks to spur a better understanding of and stronger debate about what technology and the related faith in numbers and scientific "objectivity" are doing to this country. And in that, he's quite successful.

Postman, a New York University professor best known for his critiques of TV and other mass media, first synthesizes from his own and others' work a brief but engaging history of humanity's relationship with technology. Using vivid anecdotes, he explains the move from what he calls tool-using society to technocracy -- in which inventing new tools becomes key -- and finally, to technopoly. This alone is worth the cover price for readers who have never contemplated what the world was like before it became soaked in technology -- and even for those who have.

From there, Postman describes technopoly in detail, offering particularly

original insights into the much-ballyhooed Information Age. Don't expect Postman to cheer because computers are doubling in power every two years or

because there are schemes afoot to put a high-definition television into every

home. He sees millions of TVs, computer screens, and loudspeakers washing away

tradition in a flood of context-free information.

Technopoly, he says, "is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down." Among our shattered defenses, Postman counts schools, religion, and the family. These institutions once provided a theoretical framework that people used to evaluate new information and give --or deny -- it meaning. Postman suggests that one reason Americans resort to litigation as much as they do is that legal theory and its rules for determining the relevance of information have remained fairly stable. But for the most part, the traditional information filters don't work. So we turn increasingly to experts, bureaucrats, and social scientists who, abetted by computers, control the flood of data.

In technopoly, statistical measurements -- from opinion polls to IQ tests -- are paramount. The price, says Postman, is the loss of society's cultural "narrative," the story of human history by which people find meaning and purpose in life and death. A continual bombardment of glowing electronic images has drained the significance from such once-vibrant cultural symbols as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. Schooling, meanwhile, is turning into a collection of "learning technologies" that educators use to instill a morally bankrupt "cultural literacy" -- lists of barren facts.

It's easy to criticize, Postman admits, and harder to decide what to do.

First, he says, we must recognize that technologies "alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. . . and the character of our symbols: the things we think with." One remedy would be a school curriculum in which all subjects are taught as history -- the history of mathematics, the history of music, the history of history itself. That, he believes, would foster a new cultural theme -- the ascent of humanity -- and with it a restored sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness. He would also instruct all students in semantics -- how meaning is constructed -- so they would be better equipped to debate and modify the workings of technopoly.

Postman's subject is so amorphous and fast-changing that at times he nearly loses his grip on it. Still, he succeeds at his most important task: making us pause to question the ramifications of technology's relentless march.

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