Critique of our faith in material things

Technopoly arises from a desire to control at a distance.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1993. book

"What you can't see, can hurt you!"

The invisible technologies"

p. 123.

"We must understand where our techniques come from & what they are good for...."

p. 143.

"I mean the world we live in is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us."

p. 58.

His argument.

"George Whistler… having become the chief engineer of the Western Railroad, developed a managerial system in 1839…, [that ] organized the railroad along hierarchical lines beginning with a central staff office, descending to regional managers and then local managers. He employed to great effect the grammatocentric principle, . . . . [becoming] the foundations of modern systems management."

Is the eclipse of technocracy in America over into technopoly a machine oriented or an organizational oriented schemes?

pp. 140-141.



Detailed facts | People's stories | How did it happen? | Comments | Full critique | related ideas

What is Neil Postman's thesis?




First, as suggested by Galbraith, management, like the zero, statistics, IQ measurement, grading papers, or polling, functions as does any technology. It is not made up of any mechanical parts."

Postman, Technopoly, p. 141

Mechanical meaning possessing "moving parts"

[Doric Greek makhana ( Attic Greek m'khan´, from m'khos ‘contrivance’) having a structure.]

Shown here: gears that shift the direction of rotary motion–screw gearing


Postman's cornerstone personalities:

Sylvanus Thayer , The new (1814) relation of military organization to practical, corporate organization to promote industrial advancement,

pp. 139-141.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Scientific Management author and advocate of machine-like labor.

See also Pursell



The New Industrial State

Machinery alone --even automated, or mechanical implements-- cannot create a culture, but organizing people to make, use, and disperse that machinery based originally on clocks, magnetism and transportation created the basis for the New Industrial State, with corresponding mixed economies, top-down management, and the control of education by specialists needed by corporations to prosper.

It was the set of assumptions that sprang from the mechanization of key inventions, used throughout society and which influenced how people thought about the world.

Theory or theories (concepts that rationally support each other) can have influence equal at times to tools:

Francis Bacon's empiricism used to challenge the four idols that enslave the human mind, psychologically crippling people to believe in superstitions based on perceptual errors, ethnic prejudice, rhetorical skill, or appearances.

Adam Smith's concept of wealth, commerce and monopoly capitalism. Specialization and exchange of goods is the source of money and influence that should be controlled to alleviate poverty and oppression.

Richard Arkwright's machinery , inventor and the transformation of textile production through the use of factory discipline.

Media (Communication's) Revolution, from 1830-1890, is an example of just one element in the material triumph.

Technopoly is defined as "the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology."

Certain inventions are more central or key than other tools and these tool complexes converge, such that the full influence of their combined impacts is greater than the mere sum of their respective parts.

  1. Railroads being steam engines, iron, coal, timber, telegraph, joint stock companies, machine shops and marketing. A development of railroads' impacts is a Pacey focus.
  2. Media being print, voice, pictures, means of exchanging information, display techniques & advertising.
  3. Electrical generating being the use of dynamos, transformers, batteries, generators, wires, switching devices and sources of fuels such as water, coal, oil, natural gas, wind, fissionable material, or geothermal power.
  4. Computers, the ARPANET and the world wide web. This story after Pursell, is a key focus of Kaku.


How did the process of culture surrendering to technology occur?

Postman's argument includes these several elements which are distinctly important to his belief about how culture surrendered to technological change in the 1800s:

a new value emerged that "if something could be made, it should be made.

a powerful "thought world" or world of ideas emerged to challenge customary rules and traditional beliefs

Technocracy, or the rule of the machines, he says "did not entirely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds."

The eclipse of religion, craft, custom, regional pride and hereditary aristocracy as means of control over new technology led to an absence of control.

The appeal to mechanistic, material and machine qualities to justify behavior, ethics and education led to a redefinition of morals.

Postman, Technopoly, pp. 40-55.

Two hero's stories

Richard Arkwright, hairdresser and barber was also an inventor. "One thinks of that other hairdresser. Richard Arkwright, whose eighteenth-century water frame was a key invention in the shift from hand to power spinning in the transformation of the textile industry."

Pursell, p. 45.

Thomas Alva Edison, was a telegraph key operator for a Midwestern railway, as a young man. Early in his career, when he fell asleep at the telegraph key, two trains collided, because he had failed to send the required message to the next control point on the main line.

This may be an example of Murphy's Law: "when anything technical involving people can go wrong, it will go wrong."

The role of themes and stories

Postman's views of computers

tectonic | socio tecnic | ideo tecnic

human trappings | interconnected powers


The Ideology of Machines

"This is not to say that the computer is a blot on the symbolic landscape."

" has usurped powers and enforced mind-sets that a fully attentive culture may have wished to deny it."

p. 107.

Tectonic aspects

Babbage, 1833 a machine "controlled by punch cards"

"adapted from devices French weavers used to control thread sequences in their looms."

"The computer as we know today had to await a variety of further discoveries and inventions including the telegraph, the telephone, and the application of Boolean algebra to relay-based circuitry, resulting in Claude Shannon's creation of digital logic circuitry." (architectonic)

p. 109.

"the word 'computer' . . . refers to some version of the machine invented by John von Neuman in the 1940s."

"the power of von Neuman's machine."

p. 110.

"how easy it was to meet [Alan] Turing's test for intelligence."

p. 110.

"The assumption that whatever a computer can do, it should do, and the effects of computer technology on the way people construe the world–"

The ideo-tecnic:

"the computer is in its function as a new kind of book."

"the dominant metaphor of our age; it defines our age by suggesting a new relationship to information, to work, to power, and to nature itself."

p. 111.

The computer redefines humans as 'information processors' and nature itself as information to be processed."

p. 111.

"we are machines–thinking machines"

"John McCarthy, the inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence.' McCarthy claims that 'even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs. . . ."

" has redefined the meaning of the world 'belief'....The remark implies that simulating an idea is synonymous with duplicating the idea."

"a case of a metaphor gone mad."

p. 112.

"the 'machine as human' metaphor"

"November 4, 1988,' Arpanet network became sluggish "attached itself to other programs" called "a virus"

"As it happened, the intruder wa a self-contained program explicitly designed to disable computers, which is called a 'worm.' But the technically incorrect term virus stuck no doubt because of its familiarity and its human connections."

p. 113.

"If the press was 'the gunpowder of the mind,' the computer, in its capacity to smooth over unsatisfactory institutions and ideas, is the talcum powder of the mind."

p. 116

"What is clear is that, to date, computer technology has served to strengthen --'technopoly --bureaucracies' hold, to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress."

"advancing several interconnected ideas."

1. "A human being is made up of parts which when defective can be replaced by mechanical parts that function as the original...."

p. 117.

2. "in organizing factories so that workers are also conceived of as isolatable and interchangeable parts, industry has engendered deep alienation and bitterness."

pp. 117-118.

3. "Our believing that we are at our best when acting like machines."

" a loss of confidence in human judgment and subjectivity."

4. "Computers make it easy to convert facts into statistics and to translate problems into equations."

p. 119.

"our most serious problems are are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information."

We do not require 'technical solutions' to "the most serious problems problems confronting us at both personal and public levels. . . ."

p. 119.

Sir Bernard Lovell "computers have stifled scientific creativity."

p. 120.

He is not 'against' computers,…but is worried about what we lose by using them."

"The replacement of print by computerized systems is promoted to the legal profession simply as a means to increase efficiency."

"the almost unlimited capacity of computers to store and retrieve information threatens the authority of precedent, and ...the threat is completely unrecognized."

p. 121.

"have lost the skill in making diagnoses based on observation."

..."traditions are being lost by our immersion in computer culture."

He revives the memory of King Thamus "technological modesty," as an example of what is needed today

p. 122.


Postman's analysis of the transition from a tool using to a tool commanding culture is not easy to summarize, but his argument forces you to understand how material changes brought about psychological, behavioral and intellectual changes that redefined ideas that helped to anchor customary boundaries that shape modern industrial cultures.

Pursell | Pacey–Meaning | Pacey | Tenner | Postman–Tech | Postman–Television | Eberhart | Snow | Kaku

Postman's analysis


Encore Booknotes: Neil Postman, "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology"

Neil Postman, author of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology published by Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, spoke on the theme of his book which noted the dependence of Americans on technological advances for their own security. He said Americans have come to expect technological innovations to solve the larger problems of mankind, and technology itself has become a national "religion" which people take by faith to solve their problems.

1 September, 2014

His views from thesis, to evidence, to argument, to warmings:


Tools to Technocracy


From Technocracy to Technopoly


Broken Defenses

An improbable world

Invisible technologies



Writing | Interviews | Free Writing

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Random House, 1993.

  Last Updated on 11/04/2005, and September 1, 2014

Joseph Vincent Siry

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