How to Live in a Technopoly When You Were Created for Heaven

There is no technological substitute for virtue

Cover of ‘Technopoly’ by Neil Postman
Cover of ‘Technopoly’ by Neil Postman (photo: Knopf Doubleday)

Welcome to the technopoly. Whether you know it or not, you have been living here all along, and it is a kingdom ruled by machines and where efficiency, progress and numbers dictate the laws and constitution. 

As so many philosophical and theological thinkers, in addition to the vast multitude of less luminary citizens, parents, and every day and ordinary practical people, have said, there are two ways of trying to be happy: try to conform reality to yourself and your desires, or conform yourself and your desires to the nature of reality. Tool-using cultures, as in Ancient Greece and Rome and as in Medieval Europe, are characterized partly by their recognition of the fact that true happiness lies in conforming oneself to the nature of reality. A technopoly is characterized partly by its insistent demand that reality meet our wants, desires, whims and needs.

Neil Postman, in Technopoly, published at the beginning of the computer age in 1993, chronicles the progression from a tool-using culture to a technocracy to a technopoly.

Tool-using cultures have an identity of their own, apart from the tools they use, and their tools serve their cultural values, stories and morals, as the tools of the Middle Ages served the Church. God came first, and all of human art, both fine art and technical art, from music, sculpture and painting to architecture, poetry, and wine-making, is subservient to him. Progress is holiness, becoming better humans, and giving glory to God.

In a technocracy, tools become an essential part of the culture, and the tools make a bid to become the culture. In this stage, the tools and the traditional morals, stories and worldview are in constant struggle. Technology and tradition co-exist in uneasy tension in a technocracy, each vying for supremacy over the culture.

A technopoly arises when the tools win. Man cannot serve two masters, after all. Progress is defined by efficiency, economy and convenience, and these highest goods are measured by numbers. There is no more worldview by which to measure the right use of tools; the tools are their own justification. Postman writes:

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.

Where efficiency, statistics and quantifiable characteristics reign supreme, there is no need for the traditional stories that have defined humanity. Ethics and morals cannot be translated or derived by technological means, nor are they measurable by the tools of science; if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist. The centrality of the family, tradition, God and beauty have no meaning because they do not aid in streamlining of the product-consumer process. Tradition, morals and family, since they are not numbers, are rendered meaningless and irrelevant; since they are irrelevant, they get in the way of efficiency and are, therefore, bad for society.

Postman does not argue in his book that technology is a bad thing. He acknowledges the many advantages that technology has given to ordinary people, but he also warns of the many advantages over ordinary people that technology gives to corporations. His main point is that when new technologies emerge, we should adopt them with wisdom and caution, very much to the contrary of the typical American fervor over any new innovation. 

As we stand at the dawn of the age of neurotechnology and artificial intelligence, Postman’s book is well worth reading or rereading. 

His principles and recommendations are still relevant. His recommendation for education sounds remarkably like a classical education with a focus on learning the history of each subject and philosophy, especially the philosophy of science so students learn that ideas have stories and science has limits to what it can know.

  • Since we are citizens of the technopoly, we should know its constitution and laws, however accidentally and haphazardly they were formed, so that we can be good citizens — or so that we can wisely protest and resist. Postman gives some suggestions:
  • “refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;”
  • refuse to believe in the magical powers of numbers;
  • do not substitute calculation for judgment;
  • do not allow “experts” to overthrow the wisdom of common sense;
  • do not confuse information with understanding;
  • take family, religion and the great traditions of the past seriously;
  • refuse to believe that technological ingenuity “represents the highest form of human achievement.”

In other words, be fully human. Be wise, discerning, prudent and courageous. There will be no laws that fix us and put us back on the right track against our wills; only humans can make wise decisions about how they view and use technology. There is no technological substitute for virtue, and that is one of the reasons virtue is not endorsed by the bureaucrats of the technopoly.