Book Break: Technopoly

Now for something completely different: I haven’t been writing nearly enough and am way behind on books I’ve read and would like to share. Most of the books I share are fiction, spiritual, or both. Technopoly by Neil Postman is neither.

This book came to me as an unexpected Christmas gift from our son Brendan’s friend Nick, who was his roommate at University of Mary and is now a seminarian for the Diocese of Milwaukee. Brendan has always been a curmudgeon and skeptic regarding technology; Nick, not so much, until he started reading more deeply on the subject. Then, he started spreading the word, including by giving our family a lightly used paperback copy of Technopoly.

One of the concepts that intrigued me as a young anthropology major was the idea that, at a certain point, our ancestors began to compete technologically rather than biologically, meaning that, at a certain point, our ancestors crossed a threshhold and were no longer strictly beholden to their biology to survive—the fittest was not necessarily the fastest or strongest hominid, but may be the cleverest one, with the best tools.

I’m certain that, soon afterward, our ancestors saw another defining characteristic of our species: Our solutions to problems often cause other, unforeseen problems. Indeed we can see this in the anthropological record, with evidence of hominids using “tools” to club each other to death beginning nearly half a million years ago.

The overarching idea of Technopoly is similar: that people in general are prone to adopt new tools and technologies with little thought—or even with outright misunderstanding—of the likely long-term impact. Americans, in particular, are prone to embracing new technologies, faster and faster, surrendering more and more of our lives and culture to the machines we rely on. Postman is a communications professor and critic, but his book draws on history, anthropology, religion, and more to make its case and suggest ways of resisting.

As you might imagine, the book appealed to me, particularly in this world of smart phones, social media, and data surveillance. Imagine my surprise, then, to note that Postman published Technopoly the year I graduated from high school, in 1992.

If he could make a compelling case 30 years ago, so much more so today. Reading the book may not make you happy, except by affirming what so many of us feel in our bones: that all of this technological progress, in the long run, will prove to be a bad idea. But it does help to articulate why we are so prone to succumb to technology, even when we see the risk—and it provides practical ideas on how each of us can resist the incessant draw of technopoly.

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