Authors: Neil Postman
Neil Postman is a critic, communications theorist, and Chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. In 1987 he was given the George Orwell Award for Clarity in Language by the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1989 he received the Distinguished Professor Award at New York University. In the spring of 1991 he was Laurence Lombard Visiting Professor of the Press and Public Policy at Harvard University. For ten years he was editor of
, the journal of General Semantics. His seventeen previous books include
Teaching as a Subversive Activity
(with Charles Weingartner),
The Disappearance of Childhood, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Teaching as a Subversive Activity (with Charles Weingartner)
Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk
Teaching as a Conserving Activity
The Disappearance of Childhood
Amusing Ourselves to Death
FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, APRIL 1993
Copyright © 1992 by Neil Postman
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1992.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology / Neil Postman.
Originally published: 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1992.
1. Technology—Social aspects. I. Title.
For Faye and Manny
Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.
In 1959, Sir Charles Snow published
The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
, which was both the title and the subject of the Rede Lecture he had given earlier at Cambridge University. The lecture was intended to illuminate what Sir Charles saw as a great problem of our age—the opposition of art and science, or, more precisely, the implacable hostility between literary intellectuals (sometimes called humanists) and physical scientists. The publication of the book caused a small rumble among academics (let us say, a 2.3 on the Richter Scale), not least because Snow came down so firmly on the side of the scientists, giving humanists ample reason and openings for sharp, funny, and nasty ripostes. But the controversy did not last long, and the book quickly faded from view. For good reason. Sir Charles had posed the wrong question, given the wrong argument, and therefore offered an irrelevant answer. Humanists and scientists have no quarrel, at least none that is of sufficient interest to most people.
Nonetheless, to Snow must go some considerable credit for noticing that there
two cultures, that they are in fierce opposition to each other, and that it is necessary for a great
debate to ensue about the matter. Had he been attending less to the arcane dissatisfactions of those who dwell in faculty clubs and more to the lives of those who have never been in one, he would surely have seen that the argument is not between humanists and scientists but between technology and everybody else. This is not to say that “everybody else” recognizes this. In fact, most people believe that technology is a staunch friend. There are two reasons for this. First, technology
a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost. Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy.
This book attempts to describe when, how, and why technology became a particularly dangerous enemy. The case has been argued many times before by authors of great learning and conviction—in our own time by Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Read, Arnold Gehlen, Ivan Illich, to name a few. The argument was interrupted only briefly by Snow’s irrelevancies and has continued into our own time with a sense of urgency, made even more compelling by America’s spectacular display of technological pre-eminence in the Iraqi war. I do not say here that the war was unjustified or that the technology was misused, only that the American success may serve as a confirmation of the catastrophic idea that in peace as well as war technology will be our savior.
You will find in Plato’s
a story about Thamus, the king of a great city of Upper Egypt. For people such as ourselves, who are inclined (in Thoreau’s phrase) to be tools of our tools, few legends are more instructive than his. The story, as Socrates tells it to his friend Phaedrus, unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained the god Theuth, who was the inventor of many things, including number, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely known and available to Egyptians. Socrates continues:
Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth’s claims to be well or ill founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth’s inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King,
which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite 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 own 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 very 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.”
I begin my book with this legend because in Thamus’ response there are several sound principles from which we may begin to learn how to think with wise circumspection about a technological society. In fact, there is even one error in the judgment of Thamus, from which we may also learn something of importance. The error is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thamus’ error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and
nothing but a burden
. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable. We may learn from this that it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology
is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.
Nothing could be more obvious, of course, especially to those who have given more than two minutes of thought to the matter. Nonetheless, we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will
. We might call such people Technophiles. They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and are to be approached cautiously. On the other hand, some one-eyed prophets, such as I (or so I am accused), are inclined to speak only of burdens (in the manner of Thamus) and are silent about the opportunities that new technologies make possible. The Technophiles must speak for themselves, and do so all over the place. My defense is that a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes. If one is to err, it is better to err on the side of Thamusian skepticism. But it is an error nonetheless. And I might note that, with the exception of his judgment on writing, Thamus does not repeat this error. You might notice on rereading the legend that he gives arguments
each of Theuth’s inventions. For it is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not. A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed. Here, for example, is Freud on the matter, from his doleful
Civilization and Its Discontents:
One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child
of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man?
Freud knew full well that technical and scientific advances are not to be taken lightly, which is why he begins this passage by acknowledging them. But he ends it by reminding us of what they have undone:
If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage.… And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?