Review: Technopoly

As in my post of last week, I am in the position of reviewing a book long after I first read it.  However, after reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly last March, I reread it in May, took copious notes on it in June, and still have it to hand for further consideration, because this book gave me so very much to ruminate upon.

Having stumbled over the book’s prologue while idly Googling the story of King Thamus and the Egyptian god of invention Theuth, I wondered how I had never heard of this author before.  Postman wrote at least seventeen books about the nature of education, how various technologies and media can contribute to (or interfere with) it, and the effect this all has on humans, particularly children.  The bulk of his work and writing occurred between 1960 and 1990, and Technopoly was published in 1992.Technopoly

All of this is to say that, though Postman analyzes a technological landscape over twenty years old, so much of it still rings true that the man seems somehow prophetic.

His thesis: technology appears to be a friend, but does not give us time for reflection on potential losses before it changes the world.  As scientists and inventors strive to make life easier, healthier, and longer…technology begins to usurp the place of our critical thinking and our consciences.  It is so intertwined with modern life that most of us have difficulty finding a distant enough vantage point to see what consequences, secretly intended or unintentional, may follow.  As King Thamus tells Theuth (or Thoth), “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  The king referred to writing, distinguishing memory and wisdom themselves from the recollection and appearance of wisdom which writing would make possible.

Basically, technology can be used for good or ill – but once the tool is in the culture, it will change it: not just here or there, but throughout.  For example, a culture that can produce written records can – eventually will – shift away from having an oral tradition.  Hurrying toward what is ahead, the inventor does not necessarily examine all these implications, all the ways his invention will change the world – nor do those using it ask, typically.  Instead, everyone emphasizes their hope for all the good this invention will bring.  The culture thus conspires against itself: the onlookers cannot know how this novelty will change their existence, nor that they might well end up on “the losing side” of a technology.

Maintaining that technologies reflect and create the ways people perceive reality, Postman sets out his definitions (by description) of tool-using cultures, technocracy, and technopoly.  Tool-using cultures use tools – many or few, simple or sophisticated, beloved or held in contempt – to solve problems of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world (e.g., art, politics, myth, ritual, religion).  The tools are determined and directed by the culture, thus they generally do not attack the dignity or integrity of it.  Rather, the culture is unified in belief (possibly theocratic), which provides order and meaning for the people within it.

He does list some tools which can intrude on cultural beliefs – the stirrup, the clock, mills, matches, and rifles – so I think those can be tied to the rise of Technocracy.  Here, tools are central to the world of thought.  Technocracy disdains and subordinates, but does not destroy, social or symbolic traditions (partly because it’s too new to change venerable phenomena like elder wisdom, regional pride, or social structure; partly because it’s busy doing other things).  Postman notes that Western technocracies were rooted in the clock, the printing press, and the telescope: three tools which changed the fabric of how society organized time, disseminated many new ideas to all sorts of new readers, and how men viewed the cosmos and their place in it. Listing off various natural philosophers-become-scientists, Postman avers that the precision of man’s knowledge of the cosmos “collapsed [the] moral center of gravity,” causing “the psychic desolation of an unfathomable universe.”  Even so, the believing scientists remained faithful, concerning themselves with learning and truth, not power or progress…until Francis Bacon came along.  Thereafter, people came to believe that knowledge was power and continuing progress was possible, while their belief in God was shaken if not obliterated.

More inventions, more factories, more production, faster communication…generally, people learned how to make this all happen, but didn’t spend as much time asking why.  And so western society approached Technopoly: a totalitarian technocracy, wherein efficiency, objective data, and unambiguous calculation is valued more highly than human judgment, human dignity, or the complexity of the unmeasurable.  “Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.”  Thus ideas are reduced to objects, abstractions are ranked, and realities which were never meant to be reduced to numbers – human intelligence, a student’s understanding of a subject, beauty, ability, how people regard political candidates, etc. – are flattened and simplified until they fit into such boxes.

Postman acknowledges that a certain amount of generalization or oversimplification is necessary for everyone, given that we are awash in information: the sorcerer’s apprentice, with only a broom against the flood.  But in the past, some institution (familial society, religion, etc.) provided the framework for belief and understanding, dictating what was of greater or lesser importance.  Technocracy unraveled that moral and intellectual coherence, and now such institutions, and such overarching structures of belief, are held in suspicion by the Technopoly-addled.  What do they have instead?  An incomprehensible universe, and an unending river of data sans context.  Data management becomes the driving concern – again, not asking why this information or that must be preserved, but only caring how.  “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

So.  Having been alarmed by the way in which society regards the universe as incoherent, the vicious cycle of bureaucracy, and blatant reductionism, what can we do?

Postman’s response – he admits that it’s not really a solution – is that, at an individual level, we must cling fast to the narratives and symbols which quicken us and organize our thought.

At a societal level, schools are probably the best arena for improvement. The curriculum therein tends to have some coherence and connectedness, and presents ideas or attitudes that can permeate “a person with no commitment, no point of view, but plenty of marketable skills.” Or so we hope. Since it’s unlikely that religion, love of country, or emotional health would be used to provide structure for students’ knowledge, something else must do so.  Postman suggests “the ascent of man” – the idea that “humanity’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge.” The arts and humanities can be joined with science “to gain a unified understanding of nature and our place in it.” Instead of excising anything religious, a study of religious systems can (apparently) help tell “the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder.”

The sudden influx of quotations probably displays my feelings toward this approach: I can’t actually summarize it and keep a straight face. I agree that it’s valuable for our culture to have a nontechnical or noncommercial concept of education, but I don’t know that this approach to learning would be able to overwrite society’s years of emphasis on education as the means to achieve material or financial success; after so many years of people asking “How?” I don’t know how to convince everyone to ask “Why?” instead.

Postman also recommends teaching as much history as possible – not only the history of political events, or of each school subject, but of history itself. This, he hopes, can help illuminate why we know the things we know, whence our ideas and sensibilities issue, and how cultures change. He urges that different theories be propounded if not endorsed or established: “To teach the past simply as a chronicle of indisputable, fragmented, and concrete events is to replicate the bias of Technopoly, which largely denies our youth access to concepts/theories, providing only a stream of meaningless events.”  Which has always been my problem with understanding history: why bother remembering distinct events if I don’t understand the point of them?  Postman agrees with that: “The worst thing we can do is present [facts] devoid of coherence.” Rather, we should go beyond the event into larger concepts, theories and hypotheses, comparisons and evaluations.

For my own part, stuck in my unfashionable Christian beliefs and morality system, it’s clear that human-centered solutions cannot fill a spiritual pit.  Technology cannot cure its own disease.  Practical decisions cannot solve moral quandaries.  There can be no experts in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making, because individual people are not problems to be solved.  If the great danger is to become Adolf Eichmann – the Holocaust organizer who was indifferent to the fact that the timetables and logistics he oversaw were part of the deportation and killing of millions of people – then our defense is to care more about our actions and their consequences, especially the effects on our fellow man.

This is similar to Postman’s final conclusion: that to resist Technopoly, we must be loving resistance fighters.  We must understand that technology is a product of a particular economic and political context; that all technology carries with it “a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing;” and that all technology demands examination, judgment, and control.”

My corollary: Keeping an “a epistemological and psychic distance from any technology” requires an understanding of, and respect for, the dignity of the human soul.  Distrust of technology will not change our society, our culture, our world so much as love for our fellow man.

Use Your Words: Facebook Without Likes

This is an intriguing post by Ms. Elan Morgan (in brief: she stopped using the “like” button on Facebook and found that it improved her news feed, while rendering her interactions…into actual interactions, with other people, with greater delight). She notes that cessation of liking things is difficult, so I will not necessarily follow her lead. Still, I’m curious to see how pronounced the difference might be between my feed now and my feed after a period of like-avoidance.

Facebook Like buttonThere are, presumably, more and less healthy ways to use Facebook. I took a look at my activity log for the past month: out of my 170 likes, only 2 were for content served up by a business or personality (Conor O’Neill’s Pub and the Inky Fool) rather than an individual I know; most likes were for status updates (72), photos (51), and links (38; this last category is most likely to involve third parties – think-tanks, news organizations, and the like).

Hitting the like button strikes me as a less-creepy way to engage with the acquaintances I don’t really talk to: K in New York making dumplings, V sharing beautiful desserts and Mumford lyrics, a friend-of-a-friend with a nice photo here, a fellow-that-was-always-cooler-than-me sharing an incisive thought there. But perhaps if I did comment, I’d find that it was not unwelcome; whenever I hear from college friends or more distant acquaintances, it tends to be more pleasant than strange.

Curiously, Ms. Morgan does not comment on whether abandoning the “Like” changed her output. Obviously, the experience of hitting “like” has more to do with what we receive or observe on Facebook than what we ourselves write, produce, or share. And yet…when Ms. Morgan used her words to comment on the posts of others, she produced content of her own. Not only did she render herself visible on the platform, but she added something: more focused approbation, old stories, perhaps exposition or criticism of whatever posts she saw.

But there’s also the content that she could supply by herself – her own statuses, pictures, links. Did she avoid sharing clickbait (or, similarly, “likebait”) in favor of something more substantial? Did the effort needed to refrain from hitting “like” extend to more carefully sifting what she herself posted?

I frequently debate with myself before posting things. Two impulses war within me: “Just write something (it doesn’t matter what)” versus “Only add if I can edify.” Where Facebook is concerned, I tend to avoid the weighty – mostly because I don’t want to spend all day getting into fights on the internet – in favor of the silly: informal polls, music of the moment, links I can’t share on my brother’s wall because of his settings, or various delightful happenstances.

The aforementioned brother suggested I ask Ms. Morgan herself if she recognized a shift in that direction. As it is, I think I’ll try a fortnight or two without likes. Perhaps it, too, will expand my love!

That Hideous Habit

It’s been two months now that I’ve been talking to myself in the Club.  This is a lonely state of affairs, but at least we have good port, yes?

Not that it matters, as I have left the Cockburn ‘96 untouched.  Though the bottles have settled again, that’s the sort of thing I’m unlikely to consume by myself.

Always drink in celebration, never in consolation; and if you must drink in consolation, never drink alone.

Always drink in celebration, never in consolation; and if you must drink in consolation, never drink alone.

I can only assume that my sister muses are all busily engaged elsewhere, or that the Prince of Stories has stayed far from them and thus they are uninspired.

Perhaps I should tell of stories I’ve read lately, but I tell you what: I picked up A Severe Mercy to reread it, and threw it down in frustration because I’m so irritated at how much delight Sheldon and Jean shared.  I picked up Gaudy Night, and though I love the writing, the storyline, and the honest exploration of what constitutes a woman’s work, rereading it tore at my heart just as much.  At present I’m working my way through That Hideous Strength for the third or fourth time.  I’m not convinced that its denouement will distress me any less, but at least the book prompts more general thoughts and questions about the role of science in society and the role of man in the universe.

One of the most ghoulish images in it is the bodiless face: a bit of skin, a horrible flap of mouth, a drooling tongue, carefully preserved by dials and tubes and various climate controls.  It is able, through the worst sort of manipulation, to speak, but none of us would regard it as alive.  It is not viable, not an entity on its own, unable to wipe the saliva from its lips.

Pausing in my reading and pondering this sad facsimile of a Head brought to mind a question posed to my Philosophy 101 class, years ago when I was a Hillsdale freshman.  “Say that you could be hooked up to a machine that would provide you intense, unceasing pleasure, for as long as you wanted it.  Your body’s physical needs for nutrition etc. would be taken care of.  Would you opt in?”  We all declined (with the possible exception of the class smart aleck; I can’t recall), stating that our lives were meant for more, yes, even if it involves suffering, that we wanted to accomplish things, that surely there is a difference between manipulation of the brain and the real deep delight of taking some sort of action and reaching some kind of result.  Our various arguments – some more reasonable, others more emotional in nature – all denied the humanity of a being attached to a dopamine dispenser.  We declared that such an existence, no matter how pleasurable, did not suit the dignity of a man.

All of which is to say that my freshman-year self is standing in judgment of my present-day self, since my present-day self has spent huge chunks of time – embarrassingly long chunks of time, really – reading and reading and reading fanfiction online.  “That’s not so bad,” you say.  “Fan-written stories?  Surely you’d get impatient with them if they were rubbish.”

Sadly, I don’t.  I click ever more furiously.  I go for the hit.  I keep clicking.  It is everything I admitted in my Obsession Confession Session, if not worse.  The Twitter account @VeryShortStory summed it up well:  I fed the King another story for his pleasure. It was his opium. He lived in my words, while outside, his defeated kingdom crumbled.

Study in Pleasure Receptors: a self-portrait

Study in Pleasure Receptors: a self-portrait

Sisters, please come back, lest you find the place in ruins.

Books That Make Us Human: Leaf by Niggle

The most wise and human author C. S. Lewis once said,

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

Lewis, back when he was a skeptic, had actually protested the purpose of fiction. He discussed his firm conviction that stories were all lies with his colleague, a professor of Anglo-Saxon. This professor wrote not just an essay, but an almost epic poem entitles “Mythopoeia” in an effort to sway Lewis towards the good, the true, and the beautiful.

This poem objects to the modern obsession with rationality, and defends not just the reading of fiction but the “little makings” and sub-creations that are part of writing myths. And this author went to write some extraordinary examples of truthful, soul-tugging, salvific literature.

Book Nine

Leaf by Niggle

By J.R.R. Tolkien

(Usually printed in the volume entitled Tree and Leaf.)

This one of the strangest stories ever written. Particularly when considered that it is composed by the same man who created Middle-Earth.

Unlike Lewis, who even after being convinced of the virtue of fairy tales believed that all stories should directly reflect the One True Story of God and Man, Tolkien disliked such exact parallelism in his stories. In his essay “On Fairy Tales”, he articulates the belief that story forms need only be represented life as it is in all it’s strange fantastical complexities, and the Truth will be there. In essence, anything written by a human has something to say about humanity; even if the form and plot are less than stellar the story itself holds at its heart something of the Truth of the world, be that something as simple as the human longing for love.

Leaf By Niggle is the closest Tolkien comes to allegory. The style is an odd compound of fairy-tale diction, stark description, and almost stream of consciousness narrative. The plot sounds decidedly allegorical, but it is not clear of what it is an allegory.

One of my professors declared this to a story of purgatory. I though it was a description of how to make a leader. It seems to have arisen from Tolkien’s worries over finishing and fleshing out Lord of the Rings to his satisfaction, and his concern over the fate of the artist.

It tales the of a wanna-be artist, Niggle, in a seemingly socialist community, who puts his art before people. But he has “to go on a journey”, and so embarks on a strange adventure that could be death, or personal human growth, or a depiction of interior conversion, or training to become a better artist.

One of my professors used to say that this was a story about Purgatory. It is certainly purgative.

I always thought that it was the it is a tale of training to be a leader. It does end with Niggle, having been “rehabilitated” being sent off to shepherd a flock of sheep. (Do sheep come in flocks or herds?)

But on rereading, I have to conclude that Niggle is simply learning what it means to be a human.

He begins without care for human life. He ignores his neighbors, and would rather be left alone to paint. He is, put simply, a normal person. Selfish.

But his art has produced one thing that give hope to his “doctors”; a leaf. Although he had been attempting to paint a tree, he had only been able to paint one leaf. A beautiful, exquisite, little leaf to which Niggle had given his full attention and love.

And with this proof that Niggle is capable of seeing and loving, he is given a chance.

Niggle’s painful, strange, odd pilgrimage is not quite like Dante’s, or any other literary form, but it is still firmly in the tradition of conversion. Niggle, the figure of humanity learns to be more human, he learns to be more as humans were meant to be.

The story straddles the lines between fairy tale narrative, stream of consciousness, and allegory. It is quick and, at times, slightly painful. But it is beautiful. Because reading it stretches soul.

It is fascinating. Tolkien, in his own whimsical way, creates a character who is palpably flawed, but with whom everyone can sympathize to such an extent that it is almost as though we take the “journey’ with him. As, in fact, we do.

Books That Make Us Human: The Moviegoer

Father Maguire opened the Modern Irish Literature class by declaring,”Literature can illuminate what Philosophy and Theology cannot; fiction communicates through suggestion the knowledge of the world and human experience.”

By evoking the “perennially present moment” of human nature, (that is, a moment of humanity relating to the fabric of human reality and supposing  the unchanging nature of humanity,) literature gives rise to that event in the mind, heart and soul of the reader.

The true action of a work of art takes place in the receiver of the art.

Father Maguire articulates  and develops – so clearly and beautifully! – a concept of literature that I have felt but not quite been able to express.

Stories can touch people where tomes and essays cannot: not merely a vehicle to  “teach and delight” as Sir Philip Sidney  promotes in his “Defense of Posey“, but a means of communicating experience. Tales, even the those of pure fiction, contain a reality.

As Father Maguire says, “They are only convincing if addressing the nature of humanity.” Stories have a value in of themselves.

This statement can be applied to all forms of art, but it is particularly important in literature. Myths, tales, poetry and other species of story that are most likely have not happened in actuality, tend to say some of the most real things about us. The deal with that Perennially Present Moment”.

The reality of fiction is experienced by the reader. Even when presented at the most extreme or ridiculous it must hold at its heart some element of the human struggle. To quote Father again, “Hyperbole is the language of madmen, poets, and saints. Only hyperbole truly communicates the intensity of the Moment.”

With all these ideas already percolating in my mind, I stumbled on blog challenge issued by a former professor of mine at “The Imaginative Conservative“. It is a challenge to list ten books that “Make Us Human“.

As intriguing a challenge as this cannot go unanswered. Although, I will differ slightly from the format offered: I deal with one book at a time, and I will concentrate on works of fiction rather than essays or political works. Because, in my view, novels, poetry, short stories all communicate some part of what it means to be a human. Not only to be made in the image and likeness of God, but all the confusion and fights and triumphs and beauty that such creatures experience.

Book Ten:

The Moviegoer

By Walker Percy

Walker Percy, in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award that he won for “The Moviegoer”, states that he set out to write a story about a man, but discovered that he was writing “in the tradition of Dante and all the great tales”, the story of  pilgrimage. But then, he concluded, isn’t that ultimate story of Man?

The Moviegoer is – at first glance – one of the saddest books I have ever read. Not because it deals with horrific tragedy or great depths of sorrow, but because it is the story of mediocrity. Even the style of writing evokes the casual apathy of modern man. Everything is the day-to-day, meaningless motions of continuing existence.

The protagonist is unveiled in the simplest and most poignant of ways: a man who lives only to go to the movies. The sentence structure is bland and action is  . . . apathetic.

But Binx, the  . . . . main character who is decidedly not a hero, knows that there is something more. He once was knocked to the ground by an exploding shell when he served in the war, and in that moment of shock and near-death he conceived of the “quest”.

He is not entirely sure what he is questing for, or how to go about it. But he does set out to begin.

A cursory internet search tells me that this books is often called a “story of existential despair”. It style, language, and theme is certainly a post-modern novel that is concerned with existential questions. (It is beautifully poetic and heartbreaking.)

But I will disagree that is a novel if despair. Apathy and mediocrity, certainly. But not quite despair.

I say this partly because despair is too drastic a step for this apathetic modern man. And partly because Binx has encounters with despair, and moves on in his search.

The Moviegoer sees despair, and rejects it. There is more to life than that.

The Moviegoer is the story of a man, trying to find out if there is any meaning in being human.

As story it can be hard to read, simply because it hurts to see anyone in this position. But it also makes the reader prepare for a pilgrimage, a

It is not so much the story of a quest or pilgrimage, but of the search for the courage and direction with which to start a quest of pilgrimage. It is man in the middle of a dark wood learning to look around.