The Surrender of Culture to Technology

by Neil Postman, 1993
Vintage Books, New York

As a cultural critic, professor of Media Ecology, and author of numerous books on the themes of education and technology, Neil Postman is well positioned to comment on the relation of technology to culture. The relation, as he sees it, is one in which culture is subservient to and controlled by both invisible (I.Q. scores, statistics, polling techniques) and visible (television, computers, automobiles) technologies. Technology, Postman admits, is a friend but mostly it is a "dangerous enemy" that "intrudes" into a culture "changing everything", while destroying "the vital sources of our humanity". Furthermore, technology is a difficult enemy with which to negotiate since it "does not invite a close examination of its own consequences" and even "eliminates alternatives to itself".

The author subscribes to a pessimistic view of technological determinism and, as such, uses a critical and scolding tone to paint a dystopian picture of a culture with a blind, unfailing faith in science and technology yet without purpose, meaning or traditional beliefs. "Progress without limits", "rights without responsibilities", "technology without cost" and a "moral center" replaced by "efficiency, interest and economic advance": this is Postman's view of the world gone wrong. This is what he terms a "Technopoly"- the prime example of which is the United States.

The key symbol of a Technopoly, the computer, "undermines the old idea of school" and defeats attempts at group learning, cooperation and social responsibility. For the masses of people, the computer makes them "losers" because it confers power and knowledge on only a few. "Computer technology serves to strengthen Technopoly's hold" substituting technical solutions for human ones.

As a solution to the problems created by the Technopoly, Postman proposes that we become "loving resistance fighter (s)" who retain "the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world". Schools, he argues, should be the "principal instrument for correcting mistakes and addressing problems". Thus, education is to lead the resistance against the Technopoly. Taking as its central theme "the ascent of humanity", the curriculum will help to restore a sense of meaning and purpose lost to the Technopoly. In this curriculum, "(...) all subjects are presented as a stage in humanity's historical development; in which the philosophies of science, of history, of language, of technology, and of religion are taught(...)(p.198) It is with these final solutions that the author "closes the book" on Technopoly.

No doubt, Postman is well positioned to comment on technology, how we relate to it, how it changes us and the world we live in. No doubt, we have a lot of learning to do about technology's impact and role, and we have to do it quickly to keep pace with the changes. At the same time, one wonders whether Postman helps or hinders our understanding of these issues or whether he is simply misusing his position as "expert" to mislead, to fabricate and to indulge in what amounts to fear-mongering.

Criticisms of technology's impact on culture are not uncommon. Many look with scepticism and concern at the increasing role technology plays in their lives. Postman's brand of criticism is unique however. Through his use of the term "Technopoly" to describe a collective state of mind possessed and obsessed with technique, technology, and tools, Postman looks at all that has gone wrong with the world and reifies it. Science, medicine, education, language, forms, tests, polls - everything seems to have a role to play in Postman's somber scenario.

It is not surprizing with a conspiracy of such complexity and magnitude that the author was at a loss to provide viable solutions to the problem. As an educator, I was initially shocked, then amused at his suggestion that we could somehow be rescued from this monster of Technopoly by changing the curriculum. If only it were so simple that we could improve education and the world by merely changing the content of learning!

In spite of these shortcomings, Postman's description of the world as he sees it does force us to ask many important questions - questions about the role of technology and science, our relation to them, how they change us and how we change them. And we can go beyond these questions and enquire about change itself and about how individuals, societies or cultures can control change. Or perhaps we can adopt an ecological perspective - one which asks whether or not the term "adapt" should be substituted for "control". We must determine as well what is to be the role of technology in education and vice versa. Finally, we should enquire about the effects of reifying and of anthropomorphizing technology. Ironically, technology is likely to be a useful tool in our search for answers to, information about and discussion of all these questions!


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This page was produced by Elizabeth Murphy Fall, 1996.