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The Surrender of Culture to Technology
By Neil Postman
Alfred Knopf, 1993

Postman has emerged in recent years as one of America's most eloquent and outspoken critics of technology and in this book he elaborates on themes that will be familiar to readers of his earlier books, most notably Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). Here Postman contends that "the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without moral foundation," and reorders our fundamental assumptions about the world at large. New technologies alter our understanding of what is real, "which is another way of saying that embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another."

A "Technopoly" (a word Postman capitalizes throughout the book) is a society that believes that "the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts." The United States now ranks as "the only culture tohave become a Technopoly," he says. It does not come about by design, he says, rather it is the end-product of a system of beliefs predicated on science as a source of moral authority.

One of the most ominous consequences of Technopoly, according to Postman, is the explosion of context-free information. "The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose." The "information glut" leads to the breakdown of a coherent cultural narrative, he argues, for without a meaningful context, information is not only useless, but potentially dangerous. He cites the old saying that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and therefore, "to a man with a computer, everything looks like data."

Postman describes the rise of new "control systems" to manage information, such as statistics, opinion polls, SAT and IQ tests, etc. These are predicated on the fallacy that information can be scientifically measured and stored, he says. The result is that we believe our IQ "score IS our intelligence ... that the results of opinion polls ARE what people believe ... as if our beliefs can be encapsulated in such sentences as 'I approve' and 'I disapprove.'" What we often fail to recognize is that using statistics in polling changes the very nature of public opinion, he argues. "That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning; and how people do their opinioning goes to the heart of the meaning of a democratic society."

Since traditional information filters no longer work, Postman explains, we turn increasingly to experts, bureaucrats, and social scientists who, abetted by computers, control the flood of data. Experts are one thing when a technical solution is called for (space rocketry or the construction of a sewer system, for instance), but since even human relations have become "technicalized" there are now experts in social, psychological, and moral affairs. The result is that we look for technical solutions to human problems. But it is a Faustian bargain, Postman says, one we can little afford to make.

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Related book review: Scott London discusses Neil Postman's The End of Education.

Related book review: Scott reviews Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.

Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.