Technopoly: Political And Cultural Abuses Of Technology

21/10/2016 14:34

Wired's November issue has as its Guest Editor, US President Barak Obama. While this choice of editor might seem bizarre for those in the tech industries, I personally find this refreshing given the way in this forthcoming issue seeks to engage the merging of technology with the political and the social. But the skeptic in me also wonders why so often when technology is discussed in terms of social and political change, only the positive elements are underscored in journalism.

For instance, November's Wired addresses how the reduction of gun violence might be best solved through new technology rather than uniquely political approaches or how health issues can be addressed through technological gadgetry in addition to outreach and education.  And now in post-Brexit, the tech start-up model is fast becoming the model for a future Britain which is issuing forth some high hopes for future growth.

After this summer's London Technology Week 2016 with the Brexit vote in the rearview mirror, many startups were worried about the future prosperity of their businesses.  But with over 3,000 tech startup firms in east London alone, the reality is that start-up companies in London have raised £1.3bn in 2015 alone and there are no imminent signs of this trend changing given how start-ups attract millennials which tend to rely on accelerators and investment platforms such as Crowdcube, TechStars, and Amplify.

Yet, if the further uses of technology beyond the purely tech and business spheres are showing positive outcomes, might there be some negative effects of technology on our culture which are not being evidenced in media?

In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993), Neil Postman argues that despite technology offering an "easier, cleaner, and longer" life, the necessary questions related to technology's involvement with culture and the negative consequences of this entanglement are not examined because people trust technology as if it were a "friend", writing, "Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in some, is both friend and enemy" (xii).  For Postman, technopoly is the embrace of understanding technology in both its positive and negative aspects--from the cancer-destroying micro-robots to the bomb detonated by mobile phone to the learning centers of the university and museum where knowledge is curated in a very ethnocentric fashion.  Technology is fist and foremost a cultural artifact.

Postman asks that we consider technology not in terms of efficiency or speed, but rather as how it alters our social conceptions of learning, for instance, and how education is being reformulated because of technology. Postman asks if these technologies change how we perceive reality and how ideas and institutions are altered by technology such that our adoption of technology is undertaken unconsciously and seamlessly:

Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by the church, even by God? And if the politician cannot think beyond the next election, then we must wonder about what new media do to the idea of political organization and to the conception of citizenship (20).

Certainly, the recent turmoil in the US election and UK Brexit politics brought out an analytical scrutiny never-before --the lightening speed of political critiques, follow-ups to media analysis, further social media Twitter storms, all of which usher forth constantly refreshed information.  One can hardly tell the left from the right as information is spun, rendered hyperbole and this morning's news tell us that Donald Trump is claiming he is the victim of a "smear campaign."  Just the sheer velocity of the media evidences technopoly today, years after Postman's neologism of the term, as a system whereby information flows so quickly that truth, hyperbole, lies, and facts are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Postman was very much a visionary of what technology would become.  Or, at the very least, today his definition of technopoly describes precisely what is at stake in the ongoing struggle between the traditional and the technological:

With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.  And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy (48).

The question with which we must grapple is how to bring back intellectual inquiry such that we might find meaning amidst the "information" which is streaming, thousands of megabytes per second, towards our computers.  It is worth asking ourselves if as a society we might evoke technological knowledge as something more than an accumulation of endless data where truth takes on myriad interpretive positions such that it becomes quite meaningless.