Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review: Technopoly

This is a review of Neil Postman's book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology I wrote recently for a Web journalism class.

Challenging the polarizing effect of one-eyed prophets — technophiles on one side and technophobes on the other — Neil Postman in his book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” attempts to present a seemingly radical, yet pragmatic path for human societies and cultures at-large to most appropriately understand and possibly admit new technologies. Viewing technology as a cultural appendage and therefore value-laden tool that shapes cultural customs and institutions, from politics to the arts, Postman makes it clear that as much as technology enriches the human experience, people the world-over, especially Americans, more thoroughly must challenge technological innovation with a “hostile eye” in order to “moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes” that cheer on technological growth without second thought. These multitudes are thus unable to acknowledge that “technology giveth and technology taketh away” because they only see in the frenzy of horizontal technical “progress” what “new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo” (5, author’s emphasis).

Postman, a well-known American cultural critic, in his book draws from several technological advances in the past 400 years, but most specifically from those of the past 50 such as the television and the computer, to trace how technology throughout the centuries and decades has ascended from seemingly benign origins to a place of unchecked dominance that controls entire facets of human life and cultural production. This ascension, the author contends, happened because of societal inattention to how technology affects the way we think, the symbols we think with and the communities, or the “arena(s)” where thought and symbols are explored.

Therefore, Postman writes that as much as Technopoly is a cultural state and state of mind, it more importantly “consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology" (71). And as technology facilitates societal access to more and more information, this supply of information requires control mechanisms to help cope with this overabundance of information. Thus, Technopoly occurs when a society’s defenses against the overabundance of knowledge break down and institutional life is overwhelmed and unable to cope with this superfluity of information.

Postman’s book does well with anecdotal evidence to support his thesis that technology has insidiously established itself supreme over a culture of lay users who are held in constant awe by an array of experts that dazzle with technological sophistry and reign over culture through their “knowledge monopoly.” This, consequently, makes any critique or questioning almost blasphemous for the common user. And because our culture does not pause to question technological advance and technological advance does not pause to tell us what it will do, we continue to live in a “society of spectacle.”

Although the World Wide Web has “busted up” many “knowledge monopolies” and allowed for greater free speech and democratization, we continue to live in a world of uncritical technical growth. Web tools continue to be viewed as awe-inspiring and as journalists explore new ways of storytelling, they perhaps are forgetting in the disarray of change and advance that it is necessary to sometimes pause and challenge a particular online journalism practice.

Challenging new technological tools and thus journalistic practices is necessary in our nascent online journalism age. We must not accept everything blindly, but with a critical eye as to whether or not it will empower journalistic values and democratic institutions to allow for a more positive human experience. As journalism remains the “fourth estate,” or the watchdog of government and society, it should be the watchdog of technological growth as well with journalists being at the forefront not of accepting new technologies, but of critiquing them with acquired technical skills families cannot attain because of the limits work, school and important social networks create. Journalists should read “Technopoly” and take heed of its important warnings and be cognizant of how technology can be most effective and most destructive.

No comments: