Neil Postman on technology

Some excerpts from Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly – The Surrender of Culture to Technology:

“To whom will the technology give greater power and freedom? And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it? […] In America, social change of any kind is rarely seen as resulting in winners and losers, a condition that stems in part from Americans’ much-documented optimism. As for change brought on by technology, this native optimism is exploited by entrepreneurs, who work hard to infuse the population with a unity of improbably hope, for they know that it is economically unwise to reveal the price to be paid for technological change.”


“Most people believe that technology is a staunch friend. There are two reasons for this. First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its length, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost. State 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 life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy.”


“Nothing could be more misleading than the claim that computer technology introduced the age of information. The printing press began that age in the early sixteenth century. Forty years after Gutenberg converted an old wine press into a printing machine with movable type, there were presses in 110 cities in six different countries. Fifty years after the press was invented, more than eight million books had been printed, almost all of them filled with information that had previously been unavailable to the average person.

So much new information, of so many diverse types, was generated that printers could no longer use the scribal manuscript as their model of a book. By the mid-sixteenth century, printers began to experiment with new formats, among the most important innovations being the use of Arabic numerals to number pages. By the end of the sixteenth century, the machine-made book had a typographic form and a look comparable to books of today.

All of this is worth mentioning because innovations in the format of the machine-made book were an attempt to control the flow of information, to organize it by establishing priorities and by giving it sequence. And then something quite unexpected happened; in a word, nothing. From the early seventeenth century, when Wester culture undertook to reorganize itself to accommodate the printing press, until the mid-nineteenth century, no significant technologies were introduced that altered the form, volume, or spread of information. As a consequence, Western culture had more than two hundred years to accustom itself to the new information conditions created by the press.”


“It is a world in which the idea of human progress, as Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accommodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy. We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer previously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.”