Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology is a book by Neil
Postman published in 1992 that describes the development and
characteristics of a "technopoly". He defines a technopoly as a
society in which technology is deified, meaning “the culture seeks
its authorisation in technology, finds its satisfactions in
technology, and takes its orders from technology”. It is
characterised by a surplus of information generated by technology,
which technological tools are in turn employed to cope with, in order
to provide direction and purpose for society and individuals.
Postman considers technopoly to be the most recent of three kinds of
cultures distinguished by shifts in their attitude towards technology
– tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. Each, he
says, is produced by the emergence of new technologies that "compete
with old ones…mostly for dominance of their worldviews".
1 Tool-using culture
2.1 Values of "technological theology"
2.2 Consequences of technopoly
3 Criticism of Technopoly
3.1 Technological determinism
3.3 Science and ideology
3.4 Persistence of old world ideologies
5 See also
7 External links
According to Postman, a tool-using culture employs technologies only
to solve physical problems, as spears, cooking utensils, and water
mills do, and to "serve the symbolic world" of religion, art, politics
and tradition, as tools used to construct cathedrals do. He claims
that all such cultures are either theocratic or "unified by some
metaphysical theory", which forced tools to operate within the bounds
of a controlling ideology and made it "almost impossible for technics
to subordinate people to its own needs".
In a technocracy, rather than existing in harmony with a theocratic
world-view, tools are central to the "thought-world" of the culture.
Postman claims that tools "attack culture…[and] bid to become
culture", subordinating existing traditions, politics, and religions.
Postman cites the example of the telescope destroying the
Judeo-Christian belief that the Earth is the centre of the solar
system, bringing about a "collapse…of the moral centre of gravity in
Postman characterises a technocracy as compelled by the "impulse to
invent", an ideology first advocated by
Francis Bacon in the early
17th Century. He believed that human beings could acquire knowledge
about the natural world and use it to "improve the lot of mankind",
which led to the idea of invention for its own sake and the idea of
progress. According to Postman, this thinking became widespread in
Europe from the late 18th Century.
However, a technocratic society remains loosely controlled by social
and religious traditions, he clarifies. For instance, he states that
the United States remained bound to notions of "holy men and sin,
grandmothers and families, regional loyalties and
two-thousand-year-old traditions" at the time of its founding.
Postman defines technopoly as a "totalitarian technocracy", which
demands the "submission of all forms of cultural life to the
sovereignty of technique and technology". Echoing Ellul’s 1964
conceptualisation of technology as autonomous, "self-determinative"
independently of human action, and undirected in its growth,
technology in a time of
Technopoly actively eliminates all other
‘thought-worlds’. Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning
in machines and technique.
This is exemplified, in Postman’s view, by the computer, the
"quintessential, incomparable, near-perfect" technology for a
technopoly. It establishes sovereignty over all areas of human
experience based on the claim that it "'thinks' better than we
Values of "technological theology"
A technopoly is founded on the belief that technique is superior to
lax, ambiguous and complex human thinking and judgement, in keeping
with one of Frederick W. Taylor’s ‘Principles of scientific
management’. It values efficiency, precision, and
It also relies upon the "elevation of information to a metaphysical
status: information as both the means and end of human creativity".
The idea of progress is overcome by the goal of obtaining information
for its own sake. Therefore, a technopoly is characterised by a
lack of a cultural coherence or a "transcendent sense of purpose or
Postman attributes the origins of technopoly to ‘scientism’, the
belief held by early social scientists including
Auguste Comte that
the practices of natural and social science would reveal the truth of
human behaviour and provide "an empirical source of moral
Consequences of technopoly
Postman refers to Harold Innis’ concept of "knowledge monopolies" to
explain the manner in which technology usurps power in a technopoly.
New technologies transform those who can create and use them into an
"elite group", a knowledge monopoly, which is granted "undeserved
authority and prestige by those who have no such competence".
Subsequently, Postman claims, those outside of this monopoly are led
to believe in the false "wisdom" offered by the new technology, which
has little relevance to the average person.
Telegraphy and photography, he states, redefined information from
something that sought out to solve particular problems to a commodity
that is potentially irrelevant to the receiver. Thus, in technopoly,
"information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in
particular, in enormous volume at high speeds, and disconnected from
theory, meaning, or purpose".
In the U.S. technopoly, excessive faith and trust in technology and
quantification has led to absurdies such as an excess of medical tests
in lieu of a doctor's judgment, treatment-induced illnesses
(‘iatrogenics’), scoring in beauty contests, and an emphasis on
exact scheduling in academic courses. and the interpretation of
individuals through "invisible technologies" like IQ tests, opinion
polls, and academic grading, which leave out meaning or nuance. If
bureaucracies implement their rules in computers, it can happen that
the computer's output is decisive, the original social objective is
treated as irrelevant, and the prior decisions about what the computer
system says is not questioned in practice when it should be. The
author criticizes the use of metaphors characterizing people as
information-processing machines or vice versa—e.g. that people are
"programmed" or "de-programmed" or "hard-wired", or "the computer
believes ..."; these metaphors are "reductionist".
A technopoly also trivialises significant cultural and religious
symbols through their endless reproduction. Postman echoes Jean
Baudrillard in this view, who theorises that "technique as a medium
quashes…the ‘message’ of the product (its use value)", since a
symbol’s "social finality gets lost in seriality".
Criticism of Technopoly
Postman's argument stems from the premise that the uses of a
technology are determined by its characteristics – "its functions
follow from its form". This draws on Marshall McLuhan's theory that
"the medium is the message" because it controls the scale and form of
human interaction. Hence, Postman claims that once introduced,
each technology "plays out its hand", leaving its users to be, in
Thoreau’s words, "tools of our tools".
According to Tiles and Oberdiek, this pessimistic understanding of
pervasive technology renders individuals "strangely impotent".
David Croteau and William Hoynes criticise such technologically
deterministic arguments for underestimating the agency of a
technology’s users. Russell Neuman suggests that ordinary people
skilfully organise, filter, and skim information, and actively “seek
out” information rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.
It has also been argued[by whom?] that technologies are shaped by
social factors more so than by their inherent properties. Star
suggests that Postman neglects to account for the "actual development,
adaptation and regulation of technology".
According to Tiles and Oberdiek, pessimistic accounts of technology
overriding culture are based on a particular vision of human values.
They emphasise "artistic creativity, intellectual culture, development
of interpersonal relations, or religion as being the realms in which
human freedom finds expression and in which human fulfilment is to be
found". They suggest that technological optimists merely adhere to an
alternative worldview that values the "exercise of reason in the
service of free will" and the ability of technological developments to
"serve human ends".
Science and ideology
Postman’s characterisation of technology as an ideological being has
also been criticised. He refers to the "god" of technopolists
speaking of "efficiency, precision, objectivity", and hence
eliminating the notions of sin and evil which exist in a separate
Stuart Weir argues that technologies are "not
ideological beings that take…near-anthropomorphic control of
people’s loves, beliefs and aspirations". He in fact suggests that
new technologies have had remarkably little effect on pre-existing
Persistence of old world ideologies
Postman speaks of technological change as "ecological…one
significant change generates total change". Hence, technopoly
brought about by communications technologies must result in a drastic
change in the beliefs of a society, such that prior "thought worlds"
of ritual, myth, and religion cannot exist. Star conversely argues
that new tools may create new environments, but do "not necessarily
extinguish older beliefs or the ability to act pragmatically upon
Gonzaga University professor Paul De Palma wrote for the technology
journal SIGCAS in March 1995 praising "the elegant little book". He
Postman makes a good, if not entirely sufficient argument... The next
time that you're lost in cyberspace, wondering if all of this
information has made us wiser, kinder, happier, pick up Postman's
book. It's a healthy defense against the blather about computer
technology that you'll find in the morning paper or on the evening
The Cult of the Amateur
Amusing Ourselves to Death
An Army of Davids
The Global Trap
^ Postman (1993), pp. 71–72.
^ Postman (1993), p. 16.
^ Postman (1993), p. 23.
^ Postman (1993), p. 26.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 28–29.
^ Postman (1993), p. 41.
^ Postman (1993), p. 35.
^ a b Tiles & Oberdiek (1995), p. 13.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 42, 45.
^ Postman (1993), p. 38.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 41, 46.
^ a b Postman (1993), p. 52
^ Tiles & Oberdiek (1995), p. 22.
^ Postman (1993), p. 111.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 51–52.
^ a b Postman (1993), p. 90
^ Postman (1993), p. 61
^ Postman (1993), p. 63.
^ Postman (1993), p. 163.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 9, 11.
^ Postman (1993), p. 67–70.
^ Postman (1993), pp. 104, 129.
^ Postman (1993), p. 142.
^ Postman (1993), p. 116.
^ Postman (1993), p. 113.
^ Postman (1993), p. 165
^ Baudrillard (2001), p. 141.
^ McLuhan & Fiore (1967), pp. 1, 7.
^ Postman (1993), p. 7.
^ Postman (1993), p. 3.
^ Croteau & Hoynes (2003), p. 306.
^ a b Star (1992), p. 62.
^ Star (1992), p. 59.
^ Tiles & Oberdiek (1995), pp. 29–30.
^ Penny (1997), p. 72.
^ Weir (1992), p. 216.
^ Postman (1993), p. 18.
^ De Palma (1995)
Baudrillard, Jean (2001). "Symbolic exchange and death". In Mark
Poster. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (2nd ed.). Stanford
University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-4273-3.
Croteau, David; Hoynes, William (2003). Media Society: Industries,
Images and Audiences (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
De Palma, Paul (1995). "Book Review: Technopoly: The Surrender of
Culture to Technology by Neil Postman". SIGCAS. 25 (1): 18.
McLuhan, Marshall; Fiore, Quentin (1967). The Medium is the Massage.
San Francisco: Hardwired.
Penny, Simon (1997). "Review". Leonardo. 30 (1).
Postman, Neil (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to
Technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Star, Alexander (1992). "Machine Dreams". The New Republic. 207
Tiles, Mary; Oberdiek, Hans (1995). Living in a Technological Culture:
Human Tools and Human Values. New York: Routledge.
Weir, Stuart (1992). "Apocalypse, Wow". The Nation. 255 (6).
Booknotes interview with Postman on Technopoly, August 30, 1992
Amusing Ourselves to Death