Technopoly — the Surrender of Culture to Technology

“Technopoly” By Neil Postman is an interesting book on tech and culture. It was published 25 years ago but I think the ideas are still relevant and I’ve written this to help me get my head around them.

Postman’s premise is we’ve replaced culture with technology, i.e. the way we think about ourselves and our society is almost completely defined by technology. His definition of tech is basically

  • Gadgets of all forms (from the printing press/books onward)
  • Techniques such as grading or statistical analysis that particularly benefit from gadgets

It’s not the use of technology in culture that Postman objects to — he objects to making tech the unthinking purpose of our actions.

A good example is grading. Postman sees grading as a useful technique for analysis, reproduction, automation and efficiency but which doesn’t capture, and therefore doesn’t value, unmeasurable virtues like humour or unexpectedness or empathy. He fears grades are so useful we forget they’re just a tool, not an end.

So, what does he want? What does he mean by culture that isn’t technology-driven? I’m guessing stuff like conversation, books, cooking, games, philosophy, science, writing, code, art, dance, music. Basically, tonnes of stuff as long as your primary purpose is not to maximize a score or use a gadget.

  • New technology is unstoppable but that doesn’t mean it has no drawbacks. We love tech so much it inhibits our ability to judge its pros and cons.
  • As a society we focus on things that are objectively measurable (wealth, productivity, GDP, gold medals) because grades play well with our digital tech.
  • Our first thought when solving problems is too often technology — there are many problems in the world where lack of technology or information is not the fundamental issue.
  • We need a vision, a human story arc, a transcendent narrative about humanity and where we’re going, which isn’t just about better gadgets.

My Thoughts

This is more a snapshot than a manifesto. However, I do find Postman’s thoughts very interesting.

  • The barriers to creation of new tech are undoubtedly at an all-time low.
  • My heart tells me technology is an unalloyed good, but intellectually I know there are downsides. Pollution is the most obvious one but AI, automation and VR/AR may provide even bigger problems.

Are there risks I’m not even considering?

If a lot of our cultural products and activities are designed to be objectively measurable and optimisable, then it’s inevitable we’ll automate them. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

One pastime that humans have been optimised out of

Will I enjoy Formula 1 when the car would do better without a driver in it? Will we still write novels when AIs can generate good, personalised books?

I may have swallowed all the Kool-Aid but personally I’d enjoy F1 more if algorithms were competing ;-) The second question, however, is interesting. Will automation, or partial automation, destroy artistic pursuits? The evidence does suggest not.

  • Photography didn’t kill art (in fact, it made it far more egalitarian — art is now available to all via physical and digital reproductions and there’s still a market for original art).
  • Smartphone cameras didn’t kill photography (in fact, photos now play a bigger role in culture because good work can be generated with less training — creativity is more egalitarian).
  • Recording didn’t kill music (it may have reduced live playing for pleasure, but it made music available to everyone).
  • I’ve already lost all inclination to read physical books — even though I loved them. That means I can’t lend people books anymore so that’s a missing part of my personal culture. That’s a bad thing. On the upside, however, I now read vastly more than I did when I relied on physical books, perhaps because I can get hold of books quicker and carry more of them around. My reading has become tech-enhanced. Again, that feels positive on balance.

That’s 4 examples of where culture has evolved from human products to high tech+human products and the result has been more scale and availability and lower cost. That seems to suggest tech is good for culture?

My Conclusion

I think Postman’s right and wrong.

  • I agree we don’t properly consider the downsides of tech and we’re too quick to throw technology at problems (in the tech sector, that’s basically our raison d’etre)
  • I think machine-assisted creativity can be homogeneous, but it does allow more new work to be produced and volume throws up genius. Therefore, I believe mass production of culture and reducing the barriers to entry for creativity is a good thing not a bad thing.
  • I suspect Postman (who died over a decade ago) would question our current technocratic leaders’ lack of a big vision, which is leaving the field wide open for crackpot ones.

The irony is, there are plenty of technocratic grand visions out there: eradication of poverty, low child mortality, universal literacy, freedom of self-expression, non-violence, universal education or clean energy, for example. We just hardly talk about those visions. Instead, technocrats tend to talk more about means (globalisation, trade rules, financial equality, longevity, automation, ubi…).

Means are not inspiring. Let’s talk more about the ends.

(Note — I’ve tagged financial equality as a means because money itself is a means. Anti-poverty is an end).

Maybe lack of vision is a good thing, many of the big visions of the 20C were very destructive. However, we haven’t banned visions we’ve just failed to provide convincing technocratic ones. Other folk are still supplying plenty of visions.

Although there are lots of ways tech contributes to our culture, one thing technology cannot do for us is decide what the end game is. It can provide loads of information and context but it can’t really help us with deciding on our culture’s goals or greater purpose, though it can certainly help us achieve those goals. Tech is a means not an end.

What do we want our culture to look like in 100 years time? If we’re only talking about flying cars and holographic TV (i.e. better gadgets) then our technocratic vision is terribly unambitious. The future of humanity is probably Humanity Plus, with more enhancement of our creative, cognitive and physical abilities, but what do we want our society to look like? What’s the end game?

BTW I’d probably go full Musk. Step 1: clean-planet: renewable energy, zero-poverty, high-education, high-trust, low-violence, high-libertarian-style-freedom. Step 2: off-planet.

But what about you? What do you hope society will look like in 2100?

SciFi author interested in tech, engineering, science, art, SF, economics, psychology, startups. Chaotic evil.