The Deification of Technology
Technology has been deified. By that, I mean technology has positioned itself as integral in society to such a degree that it has crafted an immense mythology around its existence.
This mythologized integration can be compared with Christianity’s full cultural integration in Europe for several centuries. Where science once submitted to religion, it is now reversed. Cultural symbols, once a reflection of the power and piety of the Catholic Church, are now a reflection of the supremacy of scientific truths. Galileo was persecuted for failing to fall in line; the subordination of scientific discovery to religious doctrine. Nowadays, religion must continually fight for existence, on science’s terms, as if both existed on the same plain.
This mythology of technology requires all sectors of culture to submit. Total domination. It is this domination of technology that Neil Postman takes aim at in his 1992 book, “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.”
A perfect example of this subordination of culture to technology is the proliferation of tests. Everything is testable, nowadays. Want to know how creative you are? There’s a test for that! Want to know what job you will be good at? Take a test! A test exists for every aspect of our lives: how we like to love, who’s compatible with us, how we learn best, what personality-type we are, what pet works best for us, how mentally and physically healthy we are, how we interact best with others, and the list goes on ad nauseum.
A test implies that the subject being tested has a fact or truth that is not only objective, but is discoverable through the scientific process. This doesn’t add up when we examine the range of subjects tests apply to. Human interaction and feeling are not inherently measurable. How “compatible” (a term that sounds like it came out of a bureaucratic product-testing meeting) I am with you is only affixed with a number because we have forced it to be. Pulling from Postman’s previous book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death:” the medium is the metaphor. Our approach to human characteristics is defined by the technology or communication medium that has captured our cultural attention.
The issue with the testification of subjective interpersonal features is not merely that we are testing these subjects. “Subjective forms of knowledge have no official status,” writes Postman, they “must be confirmed by tests administered by experts.” It is that we are completely ignorant as to how subjective forms of knowledge became unofficial, to begin with. This is a major theme in the Technopoly.
The Technopoly is the end result of a culture overtaken by its tools. “The culture seeks its authorisation in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology,” writes Postman. He connects the flourishing of a Technopoly with a saturation of information. Our technologies increase our supply of information.
In his previous book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman connects an oversupply of information with the disconnection of information from action. We no longer hear news that directly relates to us. Instead, we consume information from all parts of the world, random people’s lives (celebrity gossip, reality TV, social media), and weather patterns that won’t affect us. The only action left is to share our opinions on it. Pundits make a living off of sharing their (routinely unsophisticated and pedestrian) opinions with an audience. Creating more news, to the chagrin of those of us fed up with their rambling.
An overabundance of information erodes a culture’s defensive institutions. Information then becomes less and less attached to meaning. As social institutions falter and lose cultural power, our reliance on technology increases. We suggest using A.I. and algorithms to clamp down on hate speech, bullying, and spam; forgetting that it was the algorithms that got us into this mess. Culturally, we become the alcoholic who wakes up in the morning after a night of binge drinking, with a headache. Only to take a shot of whiskey to get rid of it.
Even worse, we have fooled ourselves into perceiving our technology as neutral, detached from our own biased and irrational ways. The integration of algorithms, Big Data and A.I. into security and law enforcement systems is an especially disturbing trend of the supremacy of technology. Plenty of research has focused on the inherent biases of algorithms and Big Data. If the engineer, who is constructing the algorithm, is racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced, those biases will go into the tech. The same goes for data. The individuals and/or algorithms that collect data are not neutral actors in this vast system. The data is not neutral, because the data collectors aren’t neutral.
Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science PHD candidate at the University College Dublin, focuses on this relationship between new technologies, personhood, and society. Reviewing “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy,” by Cathy O’Neil, Birhane explains how data and prejudice intersect to create suppressive systems.
“They encode poisonous prejudices from past records and work against society’s most vulnerable…As the world of data continues to expand, each of us producing ever-growing streams of updates about our lives, so do prejudice and unfairness.”
The data follows the objectives of the system. Birhane points to the criminal justice system as a perfect example of the utilization of data to further oppress minorities. The objective in the system is not fairness or trust. For starters, such values are unquantifiable. Police arrests, crime rates, jail time are.
If the system is destructive, the data will only further its destructive ends.
This is compounded when those in charge are also the most comfortable with the Technopoly. Postman defines them as “those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity’s supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved.”
Big Data is fueled by this over-saturation of information. This infinite accumulation of our data is justified because of the supposed benefits that it entails. Data is supposed to free us, protect us, feed us, heal us, and provide us direction both individually and collectively.
A consequence of this is our inability to argue for anything, without the addition of statistics. To posit a new approach to helping the homeless, you must first provide statistics that show incarceration and city clean-up campaigns negatively affect them. Before you offer an alternative to policing standards in minority communities, you must first provide statistics proving the destructiveness of “broken-window” policing. Simply put, you must offer data and statistics to prove that breaking someone’s legs hurts them in the long run.
To complicate the issue further, someone might come along with their own set of statistics showing that breaking someone’s legs doesn’t hurt them in the long. Who is to believe then? If you try to argue that their position is inherently sadistic and evil, you’ll be accused of an ad hominem. Or, heaven forbid, virtue-signaling. Data is taken as truly objective, as the one path to knowing what is true.
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While the Technopoly positions data as the ultimate guidepost, it conveniently leaves out any form of guidance for unacceptable or meaningless data. More and more, our culture approaches information like a trivia game. No one asks why they’re having to regurgitate random info about a litany of subjects. No one asks why you must be encultured, especially when what counts as cultural awareness is a collection of branded merchandise and perfectly tailored celebrities.
Postman pushes back by dismissing calls for education to focus on cultural literacy. The issue is not that we have become detached from culture. It is that we have become ignorant of the vast histories that have preceded us. “There is no definitive history of anything,” declares Postman. Only histories of various subjects and fields.
Building on this, Postman recommends education focus on the art of the past. This proposal is not so much an accusation of culture’s stifling of past great works for the benefit of contemporary ones. It is a recognition of how accessible contemporary works are, thanks in part to the proliferation of communication channels. It should come as no surprise that popular culture will promote that which is popular. What is popular rarely covers past works.
Two of Postman’s suggestions for combating the Technopoly’s pervasive perversion are questionable. Not necessarily because both subjects are harmful, but because I don’t believe they are effective weapons against the type of threat Technopoly poses.
The first is that we should focus on teaching comparative religion:
“Such a course would deal with religion as an expression of humanity’s creativeness, as a total, integrated response to fundamental questions about the meaning of existence. The course would be descriptive, promoting no particular religion but illuminating the metaphors, the literature, the art, the ritual of religious expression itself.”
The benefits of such a course would be worthwhile. Religion has exerted a tremendous effect on humankind. It is an amazingly diverse history; helping us further understand the reality of various times and cultures.
Education alone, however, is not comforting. Religion, especially protestant sects of Christianity, in America has succumbed to Technopoly’s pervasive power. Materialism is a welcomed bedfellow for the majority of Christians (I focus on this particular religion because it is the one I can speak to with most certainty). I blame this not so much on Technopoly but on the typical characteristics of religion. It is traditional: focused on the upkeep and propagation of age old habits and beliefs (many I would argue have no significant foundation in its religion texts).
Traditionalism is always suspect to me because it upholds the status quo for its own sake. It values a subjective social structure over the ever-changing reality of life. What worked then, should not be expected to work today. When traditionalism is increasingly threatened it mutates into reactionism. Combined, religion can prove a formidable foe against cultural reforms. The values of materialism (backed by a capitalist state that hooks us on consumerism) and the bourgeoisie (the exploitation of labor and the lower classes to perpetrate a cycle of tranquility and wealth accumulation) have entered American religion to such an extent over such a long time that religion is now a venomous vassal of the dominant value-system. The only religions that temporarily escape this vassalage are the unlucky few, persecuted and defamed. That is, until they shake it off and eventually join the cultural majority.
Postman’s second suggestion for combating the Technopoly runs along the same vein, only worse: nationalism. “The Loving Resistance Fighter” is name Postman gives to his final chapter, and what it broadly looks like to combat the Technopoly:
“By ‘Loving,’ I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again.”
He goes on to reference the part the symbol of American freedom played at Tiananmen Square, and in the streets of Prague in 1989.
Postman posits that the Technopoly is a story without a moral center. If that’s the case, I would argue that nationalism is a story continually whitewashing its immoral past to justify its current actions. This to, Postman critiques.
He labels this assertion, that the story of Western Civilization is exclusive and oppressive to anyone who isn’t of white heterosexual male Judeo-Christian heritage, a “discouraging” “leftist” perspective. Postman warns that this “leftist perspective” implies that…
“…our national symbols have been drained of their power to unite, and that education must become a tribal affair; this is, each subculture must find its own story and symbols, and use them as the moral basis of education.”
But should a nation’s cultural symbols and narratives sustain citizens and makeup a facet of their identity? Maybe if the national culture was inclusive. If its objectives were the uplifting of every individual under its roof, and not the endless increase of wealth for a select few. Then maybe. At this moment, America is like every other nation in the sense that it evangelizes a whitewashed image of what it stands for. Propaganda designed to ensure obedience from the masses for the benefit of the ruling and economic elite.
The alternative to a national lie is not the tribalization of education. It is the breaking down of symbols and narratives whose only objective is benefiting the dominant value-system. America believes it is the greatest nation on earth. This narrative has been prodded, altered, and reformed time and time again. Yet it still persists. Arrogance suffocates open-mindedness. It leaves no room for the possibility of error, or the need for substantive reform (or revolution).
The last chapter of “Technopoly” offers up some effective advice for eliminating the parasitical perceptions Technopoly plants in us. Efficiency is not the end all be all. Science is not the only path toward truth. Technology is not the ultimate human achievement. Nor is it the natural order of things. As Postman writes: “technology…is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing…”
Yet, like in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Postman fails to concretely flesh out who is benefiting from such programs. The Technopoly is systemic force of thought and for alignment. Like all systems, someone has to be in control. The massive amounts of power and control that the Technopoly consolidates are not happenstance. Postman’s perception-altering theories are useful, but living in a totalitarian system requires more than a healthy mindset. It requires a target, and a revolution.