Postman's Thesis

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From Technocracy to Technopoly

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

"The thrust of a century of scholarship had the effect of making us lose confidence in our belief systems and therefore ourselves....the success of technology and the devaluation of traditional beliefs took on the exaggerated significance that pushed technocracy in America over into Technopoly."

p. 55.

Detailed facts | People's stories | How did it happen? | Comments


Manufacture, originally meant "made by hand" [manus + fac, from faire | hand + to make. To make by]

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 water frame for spinning thread and weaving, 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
  2. Media being print, voice, pictures, means of exchanging information, display technique and 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.

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.

Textile manufacturing machinery, run by water in the nineteenth century and preserved at Lowell Mills, Massachusetts.

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 cornerstone personalities:

Sir Francis Bacon, The new relation of practical, empirical research to industrial advancement

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (1911) author and advocate of machine-like labor.

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."
  • Critics recognized that spiritual degradation accompanied material progress
  • a "dialectic" of technological change emerged
    • changes in tools, tool complexes and social organization made life, work, and acquiring wealth easier.
    • Drastic changes in mechanized tools put skilled crafts people out of work, exploited children and made life harder for the working classes.
  • a powerful "thought world" or world of ideas emerged to challenge customary rules and traditional beliefs
      • anti-traditional belief in "laissez-faire economics."
      • An aristocracy of intellect and ambition replaced hereditary nobility.
      • idea of progress as a faith in material advancement
      • a world "speeded-up" by the introduction of mechanical machinery
      • reorganization of space, time and language leading to reformulating of work, values, and cities.
  • Technocracy, or the rule of the machines, he says "did not entirely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds."
    • Social world was dominated by feudal elite and artisan or craft guilds with knowledge of materials.
    • Symbolic world was dominated by religion, the clergy and morality based on faith in good works.


  • 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
      • relativism, newest set of ideas that truth is not discernible, only related to what people think is so.
      • pragmatism, older set of ideas that any criteria used to judge something's value is "what works."
      • utilitarianism, the oldest set of beliefs in "the greatest good for the greatest number" trumps all competing values.


  • Industrial changes in tools, organization of work, and personal relations led to a monopoly of values in the hands of technologically astute (savvy) elite or a managerial control class:
    • Richard Arkwright's textile factories and machine operators replacing weavers, loom crafts, and tailors.
    • Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Principles of Scientific Management.
    • Henry Ford and the industrial reform of manufacture, mass-production, urban design, & psychology.


  • In summary, the rule of machinery was replaced by a convergence of tool complexes as the sole source of meaning, value and identity
    • the sources of change were so speedy and complete that public schools and media could not keep up
    • at this speed of change the changes became "invisible" to most participants and thus "irrelevant" to a discussion of social control of the new wealth, order and power created by machinery
    • key concepts, fundamental ideas, and older morality were all redefined and the challenges raised to technical expertise were largely swept aside by a "brave new world order."

    Postman, Technopoly, pp. 40-55.

    Comments: Postman's analysis of the transition from a tool using to a tool commanding culture is not easy to summarize, but the above nine points to his argument force you to understand how material changes brought about psychological and intellectual changes that redefined customary boundaries that shape modern industrial cultures.

    • Homogecene, or the period in which homogenizing of all products, natural and industrial is shaping our world is the name given by some botanists to the character of contemporary cultural landscapes. Because homogenize means to remove differences, the term aptly refers to the outcome of standardization.


    • Alienation, or the separation of the skilled worker from those capabilities a person possesses from training in specific crafts, is used to describe the impact of industrial production on the labor force and the value of that labor in terms of new automated machinery. Critics charge that skills are lost, such as Pacey does, with respect to the knowledge of materials that craft workers may have, that some architects and engineers may lack.


    • Capital accumulation changes when newer, more profitable procedures, based on new or existing technology is introduced. The flow of resources may also lead to excess capital accumulating due to restricted policies or shortages created by new means or new techniques of acquiring raw materials or finished goods.


Postman's analysis


Tools to Technocracy


From Technocracy to Technopoly


Broken Defenses

An improbable world

Invisible technologies



The Two Cultures

Pursell | Pacey–World | Postman | Tenner |Pacey–meaning| Eberhart | Snow | Kaku | Boulding | Delillo | Kranzberg