Hope for the future
A Critique of Chapter 11 in Neil Postman’s Technopoly
In chapter 11 (“The Loving Resistance Fighter”) of the book Technopoly, published in 1992, Neil Postman focuses on a solution to the problems created by Technopoly. A “Technopoly” (a word postman capitalizes throughout the book) is a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it. Postman proposes that we become “loving resistance fighter(s)” who retain “the narratives and symbols that once made the United States the hope of the world”(p.182). He believes education is to lead the resistance against technology by changing the curriculum to help restore a sense of meaning and purpose lost to the Technopoly. This change in curriculum puts a large emphasis on humanity’s historical development.
As an engaging cultural critic, professor at New York University, and author of numerous books on the themes of education and technology, Neil Postman is well positioned to comment on the relation of technology to culture. The relation as he sees it is one in which culture is subservient to and controlled by both invisible (I.Q. scores, statistics, polling techniques) and visible (television, computers, automobiles) technologies. Technology, Postman admits, is a friend but mostly it is a dangerous enemy that intrudes into a culture, changing everything, while destroying the vital sources of our humanity.
Neil Postman offers direction to those who want to defend themselves from the destructive effects of Technopoly. This direction is based on the idea of the loving resistance fighter. The loving resistance fighter is the perfect balance of admiration for the country and resistance to Technopoly. The resistance fighter is aware of the advantages and disadvantages associated with technology. Technology is therefore seen as unnatural, controlling, and dangerous.
In chapter 11 Postman gives examples of people who resist the American Technopoly. An example of a resistance fighter is a person who ignores a poll unless they know the questions asked and why. As Postman introduced in chapter 8 (“Invisible Technologies”), the form of a question can produce many different answers. It may also restrict us from seeing solutions to problems that may become visible through a question worded differently. Postman shares the story of two priests who write the Pope asking if it was allowable to smoke and pray at the same time. One priest phrased the question “Is it permissible to smoke while praying?” and the response was no because praying should be the focus of ones attention; the other priest asked “Is it permissible to pray while smoking?” and the response was yes, since it is always appropriate to pray. The opinion of almost any issue is a function of the question asked. In the American Technopoly the opinion poll is a strict yes or no answer to an unexamined question. One is therefore unable to share their knowledge and is easily mislead to answer a question in a certain way.
Another example of a resistance fighter is a person who does not allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense. This example clearly relates to chapter 9 (“Scientism”), in which Postman expresses his annoyance of the many people who have a strong faith in social science. These people go to experts to find out how to raise children, how to fall in love, and how to make friends, as if they believe that because these subjects are “sciences” that they are getting verifiable, indisputable truths about the world. People believe that the standard set of procedures called “science” can provide them with methods of handling their personal lives. Although social research may be able to provide some suggestions, it cannot provide legitimate answers to everyday life problems. There is no moral authority that can predict the outcome of specific personal situation solely based on data.
Postman states that ones education is helpful not only in advancing the idea of the resistance fighter, but in helping the young understand the meaning of subjects in an idea-centered and coherence-centered manner. Postman points out that it is necessary to change the curriculum of the educational system so it will be able to provide students with an understanding of the Technopoly process. Technopoly is denying the youth of today access to many applicable notions and theories of the past; instead it clutters their mind with many seemingly unimportant events. The change in curriculum will focus on the history of subjects, which teaches students connections: that events are interrelated, building off one another. Teachers should go beyond the event and into concepts, theories, hypotheses, comparisons, deductions, and evaluations. By doing that students should gain a more holistic view of the world they live in (connecting the present with the past) and where technology is leading us.
In addition to the history, Postman states that semantics and comparative religion are also an important part of a curriculum. Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and meanings. The idea of semantics relates to chapter 8 (“Invisible Technologies”), where Postman discusses language as a powerful ideological instrument. When language gives something a name it gives it control, by transforming unknown to known. Names reassure us, but do we really understand the meaning. Consider quantitative tests, the numbers given as results make us feel better, but what do the numbers mean. Semantics would teach youth to answer questions such as “What is the meaning of (the word) X?” They do this by studying what signs are, as well as how signs possess significance-that is, how they are intended by speakers, how they designate (make reference to things and ideas), and how they are interpreted by listeners. The goal of semantics is to match the meanings of signs-what they stand for-with the process of assigning those meanings. Moreover, because it teaches a varied way of thinking, semantics has the power to altar the deepest levels of student intelligence.
Religion is a worldwide phenomenon that has played a part in all human culture and so is a much broader, more complex category than the set of beliefs or practices found in any single religious tradition. An adequate understanding of religion must take into account its distinctive qualities and patterns as a form of human experience, as well as the similarities and differences in religions across the human cultures. Postman believes that a course in comparative religion will help students see that all traditions were the product of historical development and comparative study would demonstrate that every religion possessed some measure of truth. He states, “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” (198). In addition, a strong emphasis would be put on the metaphors, the literature, the art, and the ritual of religious expression.
To conclude Postman’s “New Curriculum Proposal,” he stresses the importance of a curriculum focusing on humanity’s historical development, including courses concerning the philosophies of science, of history, of technology, of language, and of religion. Postman is aware that Technopoly will not end abruptly, but he hopes that the proposed change in curriculum will be the beginning of the end of Technopoly.
In Technopoly, Postman gives readers historical and detailed information about how society became so dependent on technology and how it has been molding our culture. The function of chapter 11 (the last chapter in the book) is to provide readers with a conclusion to all ideas and concerns expressed throughout the book, to offer advice to those readers whom are truly concerned with the effects of Technology, and to suggest a way to possibly end Technopoly. The placement of “The Loving Resistance Fighter” is essential in understanding the book. In Chapter 10 (“The Great Symbol Drain”), Postman discusses how the symbol drain is both a symptom and a cause of a loss of narrative. A narrative is a story of human history that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and gives advice for the future. Postman’s concern for the loss of narratives and the effect it has on society leads into chapter 11 in which he proposes his idea for a new curriculum where the emphasis is on humanity’s historical development.
In Technopoly, Postman is writing to a broad audience, but while reading the book the reader feels as though they are one on one with Postman in a relaxed environment. The friendly tone used throughout the book creates an intimacy between Postman and the reader, as though they are good friends having an informal discussion. His vocabulary is not highly specialized, but when he does use higher-level vocabulary the word is immediately followed by a brief definition. For example Postman states, “Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject” (p.194). He gives the definition of interdisciplinary for those readers who may not know what the word means. Postman is also successful in expressing himself in a clear and logical manner. He often re-phrases hard to grasp statements or ideas in “lamens terms,” using key phrases such as: “What I am trying to say…”, “In short…”, “I mean that…”, and “The point I want to make is….” In addition to his use of key phrases, Postman’s repeated use of enumeration is found throughout the book. For example, in chapter 3 (“From Technocracy to Technopoly”), Postman describes (using enumeration) the four interrelated reasons for the rise of Technopoly in America (52-53). Postman also likes use transitions to lead into the following paragraph or chapter. An exceptional example of his use of transitions is found in chapter 10 (“The Great Symbol Drain”), where he states; “I will reserve for the next and final chapter my own view of the struggle to find a purpose for education in Technopoly” (178). Although Postman feels very strongly about Technopoly, he does not only give the reader facts, he takes the time to tell a story or use a metaphor to better explain his position. In chapter 4 (“The Improbable World”), Postman uses a metaphor to clarify an idea, “The belief system of a tool-using culture is rather like a brand-new deck of cards. The role of the church in pre-modern Europe was to keep the deck of cards in reasonable order, which is why Cardinal Bellarmine and other prelates tried to prevent Galileo from shuffling the deck (59).”
Postman had the difficult task of writing a book concerning the very complicated subject of Technology and its severe effects on society. His clever writing style helps readers understand and also become interested in a topic that most neither care nor think about. Postman is writing to a broad audience with varying intellectual levels, but is successful in capturing and keeping the attention of any reader. Every chapter in Technoply is a separate and important part of the book, but chapter 11 (“The Loving Resistance Fighter”), connects the ideas expressed in every chapter and serves as a conclusion to the book and the important thoughts contained within it. The chapter clearly relates back to many topics Postman commented on earlier in the book and finally proposes his idea that Technopoly can possibly be conquered through a new curriculum, although it may be an extreme challenge. As a cultural critic, Postman goes beyond just complaining, but also gives the reader a sense of closure and a suggestion for a possible change. His description of the world as he sees it does force us to ask many important questions-questions about the role of technology and science, our relation to them, how they change us and how we change them. Technopoly is an inspiring book that made me look at the insane way we live our lives, and how dependent we are on technology. Postman stresses where and when technologies took over, without forgetting to give credit for many advances that come from technology. I recommend this book for anyone that has ever questioned technology and the way its leading us.