Man’s Chief End in Technopoly

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology…Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity’s supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 71

Notice a a few things here:

First, Postman’s idea of the deification of technology (the making of technology into an idol) entails finding authority, satisfaction, and law. Satisfaction is sandwiched in between two terms relating to submission. I do not know whether Postman had this in mind, but this is an exact perversion of true Deity:

Romans 11:36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

From is authority, through is satisfaction, and to is obedience.

Technopoly, the culture surrendered to technology to the point of idolatry, finds its grounding in technology; it finds authority, satisfaction, and law. It is from, through, and to technology. Man’s chief end in Technopoly is to glorify technology, and to enjoy it forever. The great problem is that, glorify it as we may, the satisfaction and joy that it offers is fleeting at best – like pixels on a screen – though it may appear for a moment as an angel of light.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can use technology without deifying it; but this is becoming increasingly difficult with Technopoly so deeply imbedded into our culture.

Next, Postman’s point about technical progress is well-taken. It would do us good, very often, to consider our own opinions here. How do we define progress? Have we truly ‘progressed’ ahead of our grandparents because we have digital technology? Perhaps we are more comfortable in some ways, but I doubt that many people would say we were better. The ‘greatest generation’ didn’t even have televisions at the time. But they had more resolution. Beware of ‘chronological snobbery.’

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Questions Cannot Be Neutral (Technopoly)

A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, pp. 125-126

Aside from the fact that the priest story is just funny, I think that the overall wisdom of this quote is simply helpful.

First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.

Second, in the context of Technopoly, Postman’s point is that we are not asking the right questions of technology; or we are asking the questions in such a way that we only get the answers we want. He says that we are primarily, if not only, asking, ‘What can this do for me?’ But he urges us to ask other questions, or at least to ask that initial question in a more nuanced way. Instead of only asking what something can do for us, we should be asking about trade-offs: ‘What will this thing take away from me? What will I lose in the process? What will it take away from our culture; what will the culture lose in the process? Are the gains significant enough to make the losses worth it?’

Modern education wants to teach, and put a premium on, critical thinking; but as it does so, it asks us to think critically about everything except the instruments by which we are learning: ‘Think critically about the lesson you are reading on your iPad, but don’t worry about actually thinking critically about the iPad itself.’ The only questions the modern technology industry wants us to be asking are the kinds of questions we type into a Google search bar; by no means should we ask questions about the search bar, and the effects the search bar is having on us as we use it.

If questions cannot be neutral, this does not mean that we should not ask questions, or that we should try to make our questions objective (that is futile). It means that we must learn to ask the right questions, which generally means that we should ask a lot of questions, and that those questions should come from every conceivable angle so as to cover various possible nuances. It means that we must remember that our questions are biased, which means that we will often frame questions in such a way as to get the answer we want. We must fight against this tendency.

Innovation and Progress (Technopoly)

…Computer technology has served to strengthen Technopoly’s hold, to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 117

This quote brings to mind something C.S. Lewis wrote:

How can an unchanging system [i.e. Christianity] survive the continual increase of knowledge? Now, in certain cases we know very well how it can. A mature scholar reading a great passage in Plato, and taking in at one glance the metaphysics, the literary beauty, and the place of both in the history of Europe, is in a very different position from a boy learning the Greek alphabet. Yet through that unchanging system of the alphabet all this vast mental and emotional activity is operating. It has not been broken by the new knowledge. It is not outworn. If it changed, all would be chaos. A great Christian statesman, considering the morality of a measure which will affect millions of lives, and which involves economic, geographical and political considerations of the utmost complexity, is in a different position from a boy first learning that one must not cheat or tell lies, or hurt innocent people. But only in so far as that first knowledge of the great moral platitudes survives unimpaired in the statesman will his deliberation be moral at all. If that goes, there there has been no progress, but only mere change. For change is not progress unless the core remains unchanged. A small oak grows into a big oak: if it became a beech, that would not be growth, but mere change… (from Dogma and the Universe in God in the Dock, Part 1; emphasis mine).

Our constant change leads us to think that we are constantly progressing. But are we? Not only does progress mean that we have to start somewhere; it also means that we are heading somewhere. If you use the analogy of a trip, the car has to start somewhere, stay on the road, and be heading the right direction toward a destination in order to make actual progress (unless you are only running away from something or someone). Along the way you may add a few things for the ride like gas, food, drinks, a cd, or what have you. You might even stop and get new tires, or even a new car. All of that equals change. But none of it equals progress unless you stick to the road and keep heading in the direction of the destination. Change, even good change, even spectacular change, does not necessarily mean that progress is being made.

 

Technological Modesty (Technopoly)

…It is important to remember what can be done without computers, and it is also important to remind ourselves of what may be lost when we do use them.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 120

Postman wrote that line before the proliferation of the internet and cell phones. But I digress. This post is really a stream of consciousness, thinking out loud sort of post. But, hey, what are blogs for if you can’t do that?

The above statement is part of Postman’s description of what he calls ‘technological modesty.’ Technological modesty runs counter to brute technological optimism, or the idolizing of technology, if you will – which is essentially what Postman calls ‘technopoly.’

I do actually think that the term sums up exactly how I feel about our present need. We need to call people to technological modesty. We are not calling them to abandon technology of course. We are calling upon them to be modest in their views, expectations, and actual use of digital tools and the like. My position has come to be this (basically): that we (Christians) are to be in the business of subtle subversion to lead people to a more modest view, and use, of technology.

All of that, by the way, has little to do with the technology in and of itself. It has more to do with the kind of Christians that we desire to be and produce. We do not want to become so enculturated that we look like everyone else in our culture. We want to thoughtfully reflect on all of the prevalent elements of our culture; and we certainly want to be more modest about those things than the prevailing culture is.

 

Technique Over Truth (Technopoly)

I want to share two quotes under the heading ‘Technique Over Truth’:

We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge…

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 158

This quote reminded me of something I came across a while back that was attributed (though I’ve never found the source) to G.K. Chesterton. He was reported to have said something like ‘not facts, but truth.’ The idea of the statement is that the Christian is interested in more than simple facts; The Christian’s primary concern is the Truth itself. This does not, or at least should not, mean that we downplay facts. But it means that a general sense of the Truth is preferable to a precise knowledge of things. I could illustrate this by saying that I would trust a psychologist who has a good understanding of the human soul with little understanding of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) than one with a precise understanding of the DSM and a poor understanding of what the human soul is. (This immediately makes me a Psychology heretic by the way).

As a preacher, I cannot help giving another illustration. I would prefer to hear a preacher any day who has a great general idea of the truth of Scripture (the message of Scripture) over one who has a precise knowledge of Hebrew and Greek with little understanding of the message. If he has both, that is all the better.

I understand that this opens up all kinds of problems and objections. Yes, I would rather have a ENT doctor who understands human allergies though he is weak on Truth in general than one who is strong on Truth and weak on noses. But this does not have to be an either/or. Ideally, we would want both. I would have to work through the objections on an individual basis.

A problem with modern ‘technological’ man, according to Postman, is that he values precise knowledge, technique if you will, over the Truth. For us, the genius is one who can postulate and solve complex scientific formulas, even though that same scientist may be a terrible grouch who has been divorced three times and is an atheist. We laud him because of his precise knowledge, though he is far from the Truth.

Because this is the case, education has become much more concerned with the student’s acquisition of precise knowledge of things rather than a larger view of Truth itself. This leads to the next quote. Postman relates technological man’s take on art and literature in this way:

They are interesting; they are ‘worth reading’; they are artifacts of the past. But as for ‘truth,’ we must turn to science (p. 159).

The Lord of the Rings may be an interesting read, and it may be somewhat imaginatively enriching, but it has nothing to teach us about the truth. We don’t need fiction to teach us about bravery, or friendship, or love, or sacrifice, or humility, or the danger of technology; rather, we must turn to Science alone, with the end result that we are content to know techniques and be ignorant of the Truth. That is another angle on Technopoly – the culture that exalts Science to the point of it becoming a religion.

AI, Bionics, Technopoly, and the Gospel

I tend to shy away from posting on current events; I talk about them often in my sermons, but it is not my purpose on this blog. But this one ties into my reading from not only this past week, but really the past month.

I came across Stephen Hawking’s op-ed (HERE) from a couple of weeks ago on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. I actually agree with his main point in the column: we need to start considering the future ramifications of our technological tinkering. This is really the main point that Neil Postman was trying to make in Technopoly as well. From Postman’s perspective, which he wrote 20 years ago, Americans, at that time, needed to start asking important questions about technology: What is it replacing? What will it cause to become obsolete? He proposes many questions that we should have been asking then. But few were asking them. Perhaps someone with the alleged credibility of Hawking will actually cause some folks to ask questions they haven’t been asking.

Hawking makes the point that our technologies may have more of a dangerous potential than we typically envision. Maybe some of the Sci-Fi movies and books may actually prove prophetic. Perhaps The Matrix isn’t so far removed from potential reality. But he also makes the point that technology, especially Artificial Intelligence, provides glorious possibilities; In his own words, “we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools that AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone’s list. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.”

There is a bigger event that has already happened (2000 years ago); but I digress.

As I read that line for the first time, in my mind, I began to hear the voice of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching about modern man, the bomb, Man coming into his own, Educationism, and Scientism. If you are somewhat familiar with him, you could probably imagine him in a pulpit today saying something like this:

Modern man thinks that he is unstoppable. He has his technology. He has his computer – it is the answer to everything: ‘We don’t need your Christianity for answers,’ he says. ‘We have internet search engines that are omniscient.’ ‘We don’t need your resurrection; give Google 20 years and they will cure death,’ he says. ‘A few more years and we will eradicate war and poverty and disease.’ Modern man says, ‘We don’t need your God, we have Bionics. We can make the lame to walk and the blind to see with our technology.’

And then I can hear the Doctor, in my mind, saying, ‘But they are all fools; the fool saith in his heart there is no God. Have they not read the story of Babel? Have they not read the psalmist speaking of the raging of the heathen? The God who sits in the heavens laughs. “Let us tear their chords apart and burst their bands asunder!” says the fool; and the living God laughs at their notions of power.’

Now, back to my own voice. I watched a TED Talk on the subject of Bionics recently. It’s worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it (HERE). It chronicles the development of Bionics as scientists and engineers are seeking to create prosthetic appendages that will work with the neurological systems of human bodies (the recent FDA approval of the ‘Luke Skywalker Arm’ is an example of this). The invention itself looks magnificent; the problem comes in when the creators of such devices say things like this: “I reasoned that a human being can never be broken; technology is broken; technology is inadequate.” That is the logic of Technopoly in a nutshell. We’re fine; there’s nothing wrong with us; we have unlimited potential; we just need the right technology.

We have no idea what our future has in store. In many ways we should be thankful for the advances we are making in Bionics and other technological fields.When we cause the lame to walk, we are, in a sense, imitating the work of Christ. But if, in their new ability to stand, they rise up on those magic legs (to quote Forrest Gump), beat their breast, and pronounce their own deity, then we have a great problem. And this is my great fear. In the words of Joy Davidman,

…Perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.

Let me end by going back to Dr. Lloyd-Jones. He was fond of saying that the great problem with humanity is that we tend, at one and the same time, to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of ourselves. We think too highly of ourselves because we think that we can do without God, or indeed, that we are gods; we may not be perfect, but certainly we have no categories for sin. Yet we think too lowly of ourselves because we believe that we are simply evolved animals upon whom Heaven has no bearing. We think that Heaven, if there is such a place, is wholly indifferent to our actions (or at least this is what we prefer). Psalm 8 is our great corrective.

We in the West are back, philosophically, where we were before the World Wars. We think that we can somehow eradicate war and poverty because we have no conception of sin. We see nothing but progress in our future. Hawking wants us to consider the possibility of negative effects, yet also boasts of a technological future without war and pain and hunger. As Christians, we must be mindful that the sinful nature of Man will continue to play a role in all he does, and it will infect all he creates. This does not mean that the future is a lost cause. Rather, it means that repentance and wisdom are necessary. Yet repentance is no longer in the modern vocabulary and wisdom has been wholly removed from any relation to God.

We are now obsessed, as a culture, with creating artificial life; all the while, God calls us to genuine life (see John 3). We are obsessed with progress; all the while, God calls us to re-dig the old wells (see Genesis 26) and return to Paradise (see 2 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 21-22). We are obsessed with making the lame walk and the blind see; all the while, we will not heed the call of Jesus Christ:

He speaks, and, listening to His voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Charles Wesley captured it beautifully. I am a simple country preacher, but I would dare say that we desperately need to sound this note, especially in our urban pulpits. Hawking is right; we need to think about the ramifications of what we are doing. And it is the Christian’s job to be at the forefront in that thinking as we call humanity away from making idols of technology, and themselves, and declare the gospel of the great Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Secret Sacraments (Technopoly)

When Catholic priests use wine, wafers, and incantations to embody spiritual ideas, they acknowledge the mystery and the metaphor being used. But experts of Technopoly acknowledge no such overtones or nuances when they use forms, standardized tests, polls, and other machinery to give technical reality to ideas about intelligence, creativity, sensitivity, emotional imbalance, social deviance, or political opinion. They would have us believe that technology can plainly reveal the true nature of some human condition or belief because the score, statistic, or taxonomy has given it technical form.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 90

If Technopoly is the cult of technology (the love and acceptance of technology exalted to an idolatrous/religious level), then we have to be on the lookout for its sacraments. We can take two views of the idea of what a sacrament is based on classic Reformed theology. First, in the classical sense of the word, sacramentum refers to an oath of allegiance taken by a soldier to his king and/or country. In other words, participating in the sacrament consecrates the participant to the service of the one administering the sacrament. Second, sacraments are ‘visible words.’ That is, they are visible signs pointing to invisible realities.

If you apply this understanding of the sacraments to what Postman is saying you may get the following (relating to the two points above): First, as we’ve already seen (HERE), individual technologies carry with them certain imperatives. They, in some sense, say to us, ‘Do this and live.’ If this is truly the case, and I think it is, we must be mindful of the fact that those technologies may call upon us to pledge allegiance if we are going to successfully live in this world. Second, the tangible objects of technology may in fact be visible signs of invisible realities. The physical presence of an iPhone in my pocket is a visible sign of an invisible reality about myself and the world around me.

I am not going into specific analysis here, but I want to make one particular point. We do not have answers to where our technologies will lead us, or whether they are necessarily good or bad (or a mixture of the two). We fail only when we neglect to ask questions of those technologies; and these two categories relating to sacraments propose two vital questions: where is my allegiance as I use this tool (or it uses me)? and What invisible realities (about myself, the world, and even heaven) does it point to?

Education as Economics

In a growing Technopoly, what do we believe education is for? The answers are discouraging, and one of them can be inferred from any television commercial urging the young to stay in school. The commercial will either imply or state explicitly that education will help the persevering student to get a good job. And that’s it. Well, not quite. There is also the idea that we educate ourselves to compete with the Japanese or the Germans in an economic struggle to be number one. Neither of these purposes is, to say the least, grand or inspiring. The story each suggests is that the United States is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 174

I was not particularly fond of Postman’s solutions to the problem, but his analysis of the modern state of education is profound, especially considering that he wrote the book before the boom of the internet, laptops, tablets, iPads, and even cell phones. The more engrossed our culture becomes in the skills of technology, the more education seeks primarily to ‘equip’ students to perform technical skills. There used to be a particular type of school for that sort of thing – a technical school. We are now on the verge of all schools in some sense becoming technical schools. My own take on the new common core is that it is a leap in that direction, with everything being geared toward testing and ‘practical’ workplace applications.

Today, education is even more wrapped up with, and in, economics than it was when Postman wrote these words in the 90s. I hate the fact that I have to encourage teenagers to go to college simply for economic purposes, but that’s the sad reality. I would much rather tell them that a good liberal arts education will equip them to see the wonder of life and reality than tell them that it is simply a hoop that one must jump through to live a comfortable life.

I do not see any way of stopping this train in modern American culture. We have been headed in this direction for a long time, and the momentum is likely past the point of no return. But perhaps there is hope in the church. We can encourage our children to read simply for the sake of reading, and for the sake of good stories. We can encourage them to study creation (science), mathematics, history and the like simply for the fact that they are interesting and worthwhile, and a part of the story that God is telling, regardless of their so-called ‘practical value.’ We can continue to find roots in our tradition that will temper our need of flashy technological tools for learning. We can temper the bright light show of our culture with the deep roots and simple beauty of Christ.

Instead of flashier, we must go deeper. Instead of focusing purely on pragmatism and economics, we can encourage the goodness of education simply for the sake of knowing God and what he has created. And as we do so, perhaps, at least in the United States, we have a real opportunity to be different from the culture in a way that has not been evident for the past 100 years.

Let me put it this way: rather than seeking education as primarily a means of competing and gaining currency, we must seek it (1) as a means of reminding ourselves that we are small and (2) gaining currency for our souls.

The Difference Between a Blink and a Wink

…There is an irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink. A blink can be classified as a process; it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories. But a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meanings and, in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 148

If you think science can explain a blink, fine. But if you think it can explain a wink, you have entered into the world of Scientism. As my French teacher used to say before our exams, ‘Bonne chance’ with that.

The Cure Becomes the Disease

…Until bureaucracy became, to borrow again Karl Kraus’s comment on psychoanalysis, the disease for which it purported to be the cure…

Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 86

Postman makes this point about the prevalence of bureaucracy in our culture: it exists to support and organize but ends up lording it over those it was to support and itself being a big disorganized mess.

The idea of the cure becoming the disease is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ common refrain that ‘when you make something into a god it becomes a demon’ and Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ point that every institution tends to produce its opposite. But I am interested in how it applies to modern technology.

One point that comes to mind is that internet access should be the cure of all boredom; but, listening to the teenagers I talk to, they sound more bored than I ever remember feeling as a teenager. Another is that the internet gives us access to an enormous amount of information, which, one would think, could help us to become more intelligent. But, instead, it has often serves to make us only more superficial – breadth with no depth.

Do you have any examples of the cure becoming the disease in modern culture?