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.

Things My Father Taught Me

Earlier today, the pastor of my parents’ church asked Facebook, “What’s the best thing your father taught you?”

I found that I was hard-pressed to give one solitary item, since my dad has taught me so much: in words, by his example, and by virtue of what he emphasized in day-to-day life.  He catechized me well, taught me the principles of being a good student, and gave lots of other pieces of practical advice:

  • Ask interesting questions!
  • Call the city when you see a water main break.
  • Use a tape measure beforehand to be sure the furniture/ item will fit.
  • Learn how to type (this one not by example, but by making each of us kids practice 5 minutes with FastType for every 20 minutes of computer games).
  • There’s no such thing as a garment with too many pockets (this by the example of having our mother add a second breast pocket to several of his shirts). There’s also no such thing as too many flashlights.
  • Try to buy American when you can.
  • Wear shoes in places like the garage or the basement, where there might be nails or live wires afoot.
  • “Don’t watch the ads, children.” Also: look away from violent TV shows. Don’t put the television in the middle of family life; if you must have one, keep it in the basement.
  • Honor the cook by being seated when he/she brings the food. Clearly address someone by name when you want him/her to pass you food. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, return thanks to the Lord for the good land he has given you.”
  • “Is there a way to graduate early?”
  • “If you borrow a woodsman’s axe, you are borrowing his livelihood. If you borrow my pen, you’re borrowing my livelihood. So make sure to return the pen to my hand, where you got it.” The same goes for his Swiss army knife.
  • “What have you learned from this?” Usually asked at the very moment we realized that a bad situation was at least partly our own fault.
  • “When you leave a house, wish God’s peace upon it.”

I’ve recently come to appreciate that it isn’t always the case that a man with three sons and one daughter treat them alike in dignity. From the time I was young, Dad told me that I could be at the top of the class or be the “head of the company.” Thus Dad taught me that, though I am different from my brothers, neither my thoughts nor my person are worth less than they are.

He taught me that memorization of Scripture is important; invoices are also important; writing the date on things is useful; the items you own require maintenance; the items you buy represent a certain amount of time invested to earn the money so be sure it’s worth it; and that strawberries demonstrate that our God loves making beautiful things.

Last (and probably best), Dad always told me “I love you, but Jesus loves you even more!

What did your dad teach you?

Law Like Love

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

– Auden

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!

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night.  We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.”  The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest.  Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.

Only Lovers Left Alive

First, the good:  as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor.  It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit.  Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things.  Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.”  Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows.  But then, Adam is the one in residence there.  Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot.  This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide.  The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning.  The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years.  Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup.  They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart.  Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.

The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot.  At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in.  There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance.  By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister.  She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not.  We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.

Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed.  There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers.  Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that.  Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up.  But for my own part?  Speraveram meliora.  I’d hoped for better.  They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.

Five Sonnets

I needed to reread these five sonnets by CS Lewis today, so I thought I’d share them ’round.

You think that we who do not shout and shake
Our fists at God when youth or bravery die
Have colder blood or hearts less apt to ache
Than yours who rail.  I know you do.  Yet why?
You have what sorrow always longs to find,
Someone to blame, some enemy in chief;
Anger’s the anaesthetic of the mind,
It does men good, it fumes away their grief.
We feel the stroke like you; so far our fate
Is equal.  After that, for us begin
Half-hopeless labours, learning not to hate,
And then to want, and then (perhaps) to win
A high, unearthly comfort, angel’s food,
That seems at first a mockery to flesh and blood.
A Crazy Stair
There’s a repose, a safety (even a taste

Of something like revenge?) in fixed despair
Which we’re forbidden.  We have to rise with haste
And start to climb what seems a crazy stair.
Our consolation (for we are consoled,
So much of us, I mean, as may be left
After the dreadful process has unrolled)
For one bereavement makes us more bereft.
It asks for all we have, to the last shred;
Read Dante, who had known its best and worst—
He was bereaved and he was comforted—
No one denies it, comforted—but first
Down to the frozen centre, up the vast
Mountain of pain, from world to world he passed. 

Of this we’re certain; no one who dared knock
At heaven’s door for earthly comfort found
Even a door—only smooth, endless rock,
And save the echo of his cry no sound.
It’s dangerous to listen; you’ll begin
To fancy that those echoes (hope can play
Pitiful tricks) are answers from within;
Far better to turn, grimly sane, away.
Heaven cannot thus, Earth cannot ever, give
The thing we want.  We ask what isn’t there
And by our asking water and make live
That very part of love that must despair
And die and go down cold into the earth
Before there’s talk of springtime and rebirth.

Pitch your demands heaven-high and they’ll be met.
Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in)
Your earthly love.  Why, yes; but how to set
One’s foot on the first rung, how to begin?

The silence of one voice upon our ears
Beats like the waves; the coloured morning seems
A lying brag; the face we loved appears
Fainter each night, or ghastlier, in our dreams.
“That long way round which Dante trod was meant
For mighty saints and mystics, not for me,”
So Nature cries.  Yet if we once assent
To Nature’s voice, we shall be like the bee
That booms against the window-pane for hours
Thinking that the way to reach the laden flowers.
Bee
“If we could speak to her,” my doctor said,

“And told her, “Not that way! All, all in vain
You weary out your wings and bruise your head,”
Might she not answer, buzzing at the pane,
“Let queens and mystics and religious bees
Talk of such inconceivables as glass;
The blunt lay worker flies at what she sees,
Look there—ahead, ahead—the flowers, the grass!”
We catch her in a handkerchief (who knows
What rage she feels, what terror, what despair?)
And shake her out—and gaily out she goes
Where quivering flowers stand thick in summer air,
To drink their hearts.  But left to her own will
She would have died upon the window-sill.” 

Free bee

Links for Thinks

I don’t often reblog other articles, nor do I tend to share quick picks from the internet at large.  But some of these things are worthy of discussion, and I wanted to share them with you to provide an opportunity for that discussion.  So here goes:

6 Ways to Love Single Women in Your Church
On one hand, I’m leery of being That Single Person Who Is Always Lamenting Her Singleness.  On the other hand…these are all good ideas, practical ways of being charitable, and Lindsey has written them in a charitable way.  I’ve been blessed with a loving and giving and supportive family, friends who ask, married friends who invite.  But that doesn’t always take away the loneliness – especially as more and more of my friends get engaged and the circle of comrades-in-singleness shrinks.  Do you think there’s anything she missed?

Why Miscarriage Matters When You’re Pro-Life
On the other side of the marriage fence, there’s the opportunity to bear new life, but it doesn’t always turn out as planned.  I have at least six friends who have suffered miscarriages, some of them more than once, and it’s…well.  It hurts.  It’s hard to talk about, because what do you say?  Death has made its way into the sphere where we expected life.  I can’t imagine it.  However, I’ve learned from those friends that the loss is real, the grief is real, and the care we take in discussing it also should be real.

Prayers
Sometimes I ask the denizens of Facebook their thoughts or preferences or whatnot.  Yesterday I asked them about their favorite prayers, and got all manner of fascinating responses!  Some tend toward the short and simple: Lord, have mercy.  Jesus, I trust in you.  I believe; help my unbelief!  Others go for the beauty of traditional prayers, like this one by Ephrem the Syrian: O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk.  But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (integrity), humility, patience and love.  Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Expect to see more mention of prayer throughout Lent.  What do you pray for the most?

On a lighter note…
Between the drink menu at Zola Bistro, where I spent an evening with my housemates last week, and this fun map quiz, I have whiled away some pleasant times!  Make a note of which drinks you’d like, should you ever come to call, and let me know how you fare should you join me in quiz-taking.

The Egotist’s Club Turns Three!

We are ancient. At least in blog years. But it has been a good three years. We have laughed, we have cried, we have rhapsodized, and we have slacked off. Unfortunately, the pressure of being an adult in an adult world seems to sap our cognitive and scribbling strength. But we have been doing better lately, haven’t we?

It was an eccentric, but delightful partnership between Thalia and myself that began this blog. (The story is related here.) It was in part as a challenge to practice writing (haha) and in part as an outlet for snark and craziness. We have matured and grown in wisdom since then, moving onto grander flights of fancy and deeper plunges into melancholy than ever before. Sometimes we chose to share these with you, and sometimes we did not. Consider that to be both a blessing and a curse.

And as we approach middle-age-blogdom, it is time to reflect on all the changes that have happened in our lifespan. So, it the last three years:

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