by Postman N

Paperback, 1993



Call number




Vintage Books (1993), Paperback


In this witty, often terrifying work of cultural criticism, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death chronicles our transformation into a Technopoly: a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it--with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mister.x
This may be hagiographical, but this book was quite amazing. Well-crafted, illuminating illustration, enjoyable to read, thought-provoking, complete with some application to becoming a "loving resistance fighter" to the Technopoly.
LibraryThing member jpsnow
A valuable perspective but still somewhat reactionary. Postman does not adequately convince me that technology is now our master. He does show the extent to which we are isolated from the underlying dynamics, not realizing why we use technologies or questioning their merit. He also demonstrates a
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technological equivalent to Macluhan's "medium is the message" argument. Finally, his discussion of scientism and education introduce important points about the general status in these areas. His discussion of science is particularly interesting for the way he sees the general numerization of everything. He does invent a few too many terms.
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LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Brilliant book. The Technopoly Story: Progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, technology without cost.

The basic premise, which he doesn't state explicitly, is that contemporary American culture treats technology as being something h
LibraryThing member remikit
It points out a problem. It offers a reasonable solution. Unlikely, but reasonable. I like it.
LibraryThing member starcat
Read at work over lunch breaks.
I was going to write that this book is absolutely terrible, that its use should be confined to classes on the use of polemic and advanced straw-man attacks. Nearly every paragraph contains something deeply flawed, whether arguing from specious analogy, exaggerated
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mischaracterizations, citing an authority rather than proving or demonstrating his point, assuming points he can't make, and on on on on on. If you kept the paragraphs that didn't commit errors of logic or fallacies of argument, there may only be a few pages remaining. And this is sad, as there are several good ideas buried underneath all this drek. It's an elitist (remember when the only people talking and doing things were the 10%?), conservative (Burkean-type, but also Go Nancy Reagan!), pro-American (isn't it just wonderful that the Chinese in Tiananmen Square made a replica Statue of Liberty? America is the best, when functioning "properly") rant for a lost age that only existed for a few, if at all. He slams our attitude to science as being religious, then urges on a return to a more reverent religious time (this is a common argument, and it never makes any sense). And let's just say that Technopoly is a shorthand for everything Postman doesn't like about modern society. Technical, bureaucratic, computerized, saturated with simple entertainments and advertising, short sighted with no regard for history. The good parts lurk amongst this overstated and poorly stitched together mix.

Bah. I mean, I was going to write a lot more, pages more, and was going to attempt to be coherent. But instead this is all that is going to come out.

Except! The last chapter. Oh, that last chapter. It is, for the most part, incredibly good. He proposes some solutions to the problems of Technopoly, and I largely agree. It must begin with education, as it is one of the few technologies we have (note: I'm using Postman's terminology; I'm profoundly uncomfortable calling our educational apparatus a technology) that people will allow to be modified, and it directly addresses people's attitudes and behaviours. His proposal is actually modest, and he admits that it is only a beginning. He suggests that all of our classes be taught with a strong historical component, in essence demystifying the content, which allows the student a chance to critically engage the material. He wants Semantics taught in language classes, so that we may come to understand how words come to have meaning, how they relate to the world and to the senses we want to give them. A history of Science will show students that Science is more than just facts and weird equations, that it is a profound venture into understanding how the world works and our place in it, and that the people involved in creating it were all too human. Where does this leave History classes? History is to change from lists of facts of names and dates, an incomprehensible schmozzle if ever there was one, to teaching how history is created, why it is written the way it is, and the uses to which it has been put to use. No history is neutral, all have their inherent bias. This helps center a student in a world of deeper cultural influences, to tell a richer and more involved story of their origins and how they fit in to the present, and how to better grasp the stories of those who come from different cultural backgrounds. Of interest, as he is a conservative, he believes that when this is done properly, it will avoid the worst excesses of cultural relativism.

So, I applaud his last chapter. Unfortunately, it can't really redeem the mess that is the rest of the book.
2 stars oc
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LibraryThing member kittyjay
We all recognize the changing world around us: our phones are computers, our computers are televisions, and our bookshelves are now condensed to a single Kindle reader. Books upon books have been written on the subject, but all of them seem to echo the question, "What next?". For this, Postman has
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a remedy; we should not be asking, "What next?", but "Why?".

In a rather brilliant and often very clever dissection of modern culture, Postman breaks down when technology became a tool to be used by humans and turned into the master. He outlines three major time periods in culture: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. The first uses tools as a means to carry out an overarching ideology (for instance, supposing the printing press will be a boon to Catholicism). The technocracies see technology as a means to improve upon the human condition. Finally, technopolies arise, wherein the former ideology is destroyed, and technology itself becomes both the new guiding ideology and the means.

Postman, without becoming alarmist or shaking his walking stick at televisions/radios/etc., manages to explain why this is not a good thing, and what the ramifications of such a technopoly are. We have already seen them ourselves, in the presence of bureaucracies that seem uncaring and soulless to those who are crushed beneath it.

The book was written in 1992, which sometimes dates it - there is no reference to the Internet and its wider implications, for instance - but other than that, it seems oddly prescient.

He feels obliged at the end to offer a solution, which is unfortunately almost necessary to those who choose a lack of a solution as a valid defense for ignoring the criticism itself, and though it was certainly stirring and inspirational, and no doubt would work, it is patently obvious that as higher-education institutions themselves are wrapped up in the new technopoly and cease to see students anymore, but instead, consumers, the practical implication is nigh impossible; colleges want their money.

Still, he proposes that there is no way to stop it, but we can show an awareness and practice "technological modesty" - recognizing that technology, in and itself, is not always progress, and that even technology used for good purposes can lead to social debits and unintended consequences.
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LibraryThing member Jared_Runck
It is difficult, if not impossible, stray too far into the literature of contemporary cultural criticism without running headlong into a Neil Postman reference…typically brief, often coated with a benign diplomacy that betrays nothing useful, and sometimes with a tone of sighing obligation. It
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seems that, like Stanley Fish, Neil Postman is one of that breed of intellectual that takes an almost excessive delight in raining on OTHER people's parades.

I'll admit, as a scholar in my own small right, I felt a bit uncomfortable reading a scholar who…well, deeply questioned whether or not our culture even really understood what "scholarship" really was. (Just read his thoughts on social "science" and the value of "statistics," and you'll understand that last sentence.)

But Postman is not some sociology prof-reject out to right some past tenure-interview-gone-terribly-awry. The project of "Technology" is at once more basic and more profound. Honestly, I found the argument of the book incredibly simple and easy-to-follow: The relationship of humanity to its technologies has passed through two complete evolutionary stages: from tool-using to technocracy and has now entered a third phase that is the title of the book. The issue here is not the development of specific technologies (note the lowercase "t") but a shift in the positioning of Technology (note the capital "T") in relationship to other domains of knowledge. No longer content to coexist with, say, other realms of truth-telling like Religion and Tradition, Technology now threatens to overtake them. As Postman writes:

"Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself…It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant" (p. 48).

Technopoly is, he summarizes, "totalitarian technocracy." To put his point in more theological terms that I can better grasp, modern Western societies (especially the USA) now have more faith in the promise of Technology than they do in the promise of Humanity. (Faith in the promise of Divinity began its slow fade with the rise of the Enlightenment, but that is a digression from the topic at hand.) The balance has subtly shifted from optimism that WE (Humanity) could shape Technology to meet OUR ends to a new kind of optimism that Technology could rescue/save US from the frightening ends to which we have put it. So, in the Technopolist world, the answer to, say, the threat of nuclear holocaust is—in fact, MUST be—a technological one. Bigger bombs, better defense systems, satellites with lasers…you get the point, I hope.

Postman is not out to destroy Technology; he doesn't promote some impossible return to a pre-technological age. Rather, he wants to break Technology's DOMINATION over other ways and realms of human knowing. Postman simply tries to illuminate Technopoly's slow creep. Ever so subtly, Technology has become the Master and Humanity has assumed the role of servant. Truth is reduced to Data; Wisdom is misidentified as Information. And anything that does not easily convert to a "data-stream" format—any Truth that cannot be spit out as a number in a data table—becomes useless. What makes the effects of Technopoly so insidious is both their subtlety and their pervasiveness. This kind of thinking is literally everywhere, from dating websites that match users based on some system of personality "profiling" to educational assessment strategies that focus on "data-driven decision-making processes" (if I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT phrase at an accreditation conference). And in a Technopoly, the educator doesn't even think to ask: "Why should data be what drives educational decisions?" What a person earns after completing a college degree actually tells you very little about whether or not they are an "educated" person; it's simply a good way for the government to track their ROI on student grants & loans programs, a classically Technopolist concern.

I suppose it feels a bit overblown to describe a book as "revolutionary." And perhaps you will think Postman's work ISN'T that, after all. But it is the closest I'VE come to a "revolutionary" read in the past few years. Postman's problem is not that his observations are off-base; his problem is that they are prophetic…observations that will "take on" meaning and significance as the decades pass. And, unfortunately, as with the observations of most prophets, I fear their truth will recognized by most in society at a point too late to matter.
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LibraryThing member themulhern
Another pithy Neil Postman polemic! And he's mostly right, too. Once one becomes familiar with Neil Postman, I think one can read individual chapters as stand-alone essays.

So, I went straight to Chapter 9: Scientism, as I already have a dismissive attitude to the so-called "social sciences", based
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on reading works written fairly long ago, like Feynman's essay on "Cargo Cult Science" and more recent things, like the psychological experiments on a frozen salmon. Bad ideas of scientism as Postman lists them:

1. The methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior.
2. Social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis.
3. Faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.

He points out that both scientists and "social scientists" use quantities, that's not proof that they're doing the same thing, any more than it's proof that accountants are doing science. Both sometimes do things that they call experiments, of course. "Social science" is, he points out, unfalsifiable. "Social science" is our modern substitute for the kind of thing we might usually seek through the reading of novels, and learn more by so doing. What is going on in "social science" is the establishment of a mythology.

Good quotation:
"Unlike science, social research never rediscovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again."
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LibraryThing member RajivC
This book by Neil Postman is profound, engaging, and challenging. These days, when we speak of 'technology,' we speak of mobile phone technology, computer technology, and other allied topics. However, the role technology has played in our lives is deep.

Neil Postman takes us on a journey, starting
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from the concept of technology and why he coined a new word, 'technopoly.' Inventions like the clock, the printing press, photography, etc., have profoundly shaped humanity, and we do not think of this. We take these technologies for granted.

It is thirty years since he wrote the book, and the lessons he offers hold even today when the developments are even more rapid.

The question is: are we ready, and can we adapt? An excellent companion book to this one is Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock."

His last chapter on education is instructive.

Neil Postman writes forcefully and keeps you engaged right until the end. This book is important.
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Original publication date


Physical description

240 p.; 8 inches


0679745408 / 9780679745402
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