Notes for Neil Postman Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Key concepts: knowledge monopolies, technopoly.

Related theorists: Harold Innis, Friedrich Kittler.


Uncontrolled growth of technology destroys vital sources of humanity; thus the concluding recommendation is to restore history to education.

(xii) Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy.

The Judgment of Thamus

Thamus failed to acknowledge positive effects of writing.

(7) I have brought Freud into the conversation only to show that a wise man—even one of such a woeful countenance—must begin his critique of technology by acknowledging its successes. Had King Thamus been as wise as reputed, he would not have forgotten to include in his judgment a prophecy about the powers that writing would enlarge.

Technology redefines important terms.

(8) The old words still look the same, are still used in the same kinds of sentences. But they do not have the same meanings; in some cases, they have opposite meanings, and this is what Thamus wishes to teach us—that technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology.

Innis knowledge monopolies: are there additional dangers in computers than the coverage provided by Plato that Postman admits grounds his thought, alluding to Kittler?

(9) Here, there are several more principles to be mined from the judgment of Thamus that require mentioning because they presage all I will write about. . . . Harold Innis, the father of modern communication studies, repeatedly spoke of the “knowledge monopolies” created by important technologies. He meant precisely what Thamus had in mind: those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology.

Example of television as knowledge monopoly undermining school system grounded on printed word.

(9-10) Let us take as an example the case of television. . . . television may bring a gradual end to the careers of schoolteachers, since school was an invention of the printing press and must stand or fall on the issue of how much importance the printed word has.

Computer technology of questionable value to everyday masses, the losers, yet it is from the losers that revolutionaries compute.

Computers like television afford little to masses and intrude, making losers.

(10-11) We have a similar situation in the development and spread of computer technology, for here too there are winners and losers. . . . But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? . . . In a word, almost nothing that they need happens to the losers. Which is why they are losers.
(11) Eventually, the losers succumb, in part because they believe, as Thamus prophesied, that the specialized knowledge of the masters of a new technology is a form of wisdom. The masters come to believe this as well, as Thamus also prophesied. The result is that certain questions do not arise. For example, to whom will the technology give greater power and freedom? And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it?

Interesting narrative about Farish who invented grading examinations.

(12-13) I should like to give only one example of how technology creates new conceptions of what is real and, in the process, undermines older conceptions. I refer to the seemingly harmless practice of assigning marks or grades to the answers students give on examinations. . . . In point of fact, the first instance of grading students' papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish. No one knows much about William Farish; not more than a handful have ever heard of him. And yet his idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thgouths was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself.

Profound transformation of understanding what is real influenced by tools; failure to predict directions new technologies take.

(13) Our understanding of what is real is different. 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, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.
(15) Unforeseen consequences stand in the way of all those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us.

Media at war with each other symptomatic of conflicting collective world views.

(16) When media make war against each other, it is a case of world views in collision.

Children battle biases of television against entrenched printed word in school.

(16-17) Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There, they encounter the world of the printed word. . . . They are failures, but not because they are stupid. They are failures because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side—at least for the moment.

Fear that computers in classrooms will raise egocentrism to virtue over communal speech of interpersonal interaction replaced by machine interfaces; given its occurrence, as an instance of becoming like the dead previously encompassingly applied to print media, how do we get out of the ensuing mess?

(17) Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?

Technological change as ecological, far more permeating than additive or subtractive of individual units.

(18) Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. . . . One significant change generates total change.

Practical technological questions imply acceptance of status quo.

(19) In other words, in asking their practical questions, educators, entrepreneurs, preachers, and politicians are like the house-dog munching peacefully on the meat while the house is looted.

Technopoly is the unnamed multispectrum Big Other that alters the structure of human interests down to our symbols while affecting communities, populations, reached by taking an ecological view, expansive, appreciative of the overall impact on cognition rather than honed to unit operations; Postman makes the call to revitalize speaking across centuries invoking the familiar Platonic Thamus to counter long term stupefaction being produced by current technologies.

(20) New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things with think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. As Thamus spoke to Innis across the centuries, it is essential that we listen to their conversation, join in it, revitalize it. For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is—in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly.

From Tools to Technocracy

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.