Neil Postman, Technopoly, and Technological Theology

Early in his book Technopoly, Neil Postman presents a helpful summary of the variety of schema or classifications offered by historians for the history of the relationship of technology to culture:

We think at once of the best-known classification:  the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Steel Age.  We speak easily of the Industrial Revolution, a term popularized by Arnold Toynbee, and, more recently, of the Post-Industrial Revolution, so named by Daniel bell.  Oswald Spengler wrote of the Age of Machine Technics, and C. S. Peirce called the nineteenth century the Railway Age.  Lewis Mumford, looking at matters from a longer perspective, gave us the Eotechnic, the Paleotechnic, and Neotechnic Ages.  With equally telescopic perspective, Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote of three stages in the development of technology:  the age of technology of chance, the age of technology of the artisan, the age of technology of the technician.  Walter Ong has written about Oral cultures, Chirographic cultures, Typographic cultures, and Electronic cultures.  McLuhan himself introduced the phrase “the Age of Gutenberg” (which, he believed, is now replaced by the Age of Electronic Communication).

A lot is packed into that paragraph, and if we were to go on and read each of these scholars in order to understand their classifications we would end up with an impressive grasp on the relationship of technology to culture. To these Postman adds his own schema.  He divides cultures into three types:  tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. Here is a quick overview for your consideration:

In a tool-using culture according to Postman, tools were “largely invented to do two things”:  “solve specific and urgent problems of physical life” and “serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion …” Additionally, “in a tool-using culture technology is not seen as autonomous, and is subject to the jurisdiction of some binding social or religious system.”

In a technocracy, society is “only loosely controlled by social custom and religious tradition” and it is “driven by the impulse to invent.” A technocracy, however, “does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique.  Technopoly does.”

Technopoly, in Postman’s most succinct formulation, features “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”  Postman took the assumptions informing Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management to be more less the assumptions of the “thought-world of Technopoly.” These included the following beliefs:

  • “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency”
  • “technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment”
  • “human judgment cannot be trusted because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity”
  • “subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking”
  • “what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value”
  • “the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Ironically, in Postman’s view, these assumptions amount to a “technological theology.”  In other words, while traditional theologies which governed tool-using cultures are displaced in a technocracy, in a  Technolopy a governing ideology in the mode of theology is reintroduced to order society. The function of theology has not been eradicated, it has just been reconfigured, which rather reminds me of a Dylan tune:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

I’ll leave the applications to you.

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