In his book “ Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology”, Neil Postman presents Plato’s legend of the wise king Thamus’ response to the invention of writing as an instructive lesson in how societies should think about living in a technological society with “wise circumspection” (Postman, 1992, p.4). In the chapter “The Judgment of Thamus”, Postman critiques societal adoption of new technologies without proper consideration of the blessings and burdens that accompany them. Postman uses the introduction of writing, which he identifies as a powerful transformative technology, to show not simply the culture-altering effect of technology, but also to illustrate the differing views we have about new technologies, and to warn us to consider the consequences of the adoption and cultural integration of technology.
Writing from the late 20th century at a time when new media technologies were also having a profound effect on western culture, Postman provides both a historical understanding of the impact of technology – such as writing – as well as a prescient perspective regarding future innovations like the Internet.
In this commentary, I will review Postman’s analysis of society’s response to technological change, focusing initially on his views on the introduction of writing but leading to a broader analysis of the relevance of his thoughts on technological innovations in the digital age.
The Judgment of Thamus
In the chapter “The Judgment of Thamus”, Postman recounts the legend of King Thamus (as told by Socrates) in Plato’s “Phaedrus”. Early in the chapter, the god Theuth presents his invention of writing to King Thamus, who dismisses it, claiming that writing, while increasing recollection, will damage memory and create false wisdom (Postman, 1992). Although Postman supports this claim, noting that it is “demonstrable that writing has had this effect” (1992, p.4), he also argues that Thamus’ chief error was in failing to recognize the benefits of writing. From the perspective of the 21st century of course, it is difficult for us to consider anything other than the benefits of this well-entrenched technology. However, Postman identifies himself as a “dissenting voice … to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes” (1992, p.7) and willingly provides an alternative viewpoint.
A key idea of Postman’s that is illustrated in this chapter is that all technologies produce both blessings and burdens for cultures that adopt them. Writing stands as one of the most significant technological advances in human history with benefits that we now take for granted, but the move from an oral to a literate culture did more than provide a new mode of storing knowledge; as Walter Ong observed, it “transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 1982, p. 77). Writing makes us think differently, and changes how we define wisdom. For example, Ong notes that Socrates (through Plato) warns that, unlike wisdom gained in an oral culture, written knowledge cannot defend itself from challenges (1982). Additionally, Postman points out that print emphasizes individualized learning while orality emphasizes group learning and cooperation (1992), an observation also made by indigenous scholars in defense of their oral traditions (Bowers et al, 2000).
Throughout the chapter, Postman argues that societies must negotiate with new technologies based on the understanding that innovations profoundly alter cultures (often in ways that transcend their original purpose), and that we need to admit new technologies with our “eyes wide open” – a challenging task when individual and group perspectives break down into “technophiles”, who cannot imagine what technologies will undo, and “technophobes” who cannot recognize the positive effects of technology. Postman situates his position in the middle, which recognizes both positive and negative consequences of technology, but he also warns that the consequences may not always be immediately apparent. Postman describes the impact of new technology as ecological in that it eventually affects all parts of the ecosystem. To support this he provides examples of new technologies, such as the mechanical clock , whose effect went far beyond the original intent.
Postman also asks the critical questions: “to whom will the technology give greater power and freedom? And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it?” (1992, p.11). These are questions that acknowledge the societal implications of technological innovation. “Knowledge monopolies” linked to specific technologies are created and overturned by new technologies and there will be winners and losers when a new technology becomes integrated into a culture. While the winners are not easy to predict, Postman argues that we still need to pause and think, because “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it was designed to do”. (1992, p.7).
Postman writes with great insight about the fundamental non-neutrality of technology, and by drawing a line from the invention of writing to computers, he establishes a broad historical context for technological innovation, thereby making his perspective particularly relevant as we now confront the deep social, economic, cultural and educational changes that follow the introduction of new media such as the Internet. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964, “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”. Technology is a powerful force that transforms us and restructures our societies.
Postman acknowledges throughout this chapter the challenges of anticipating the consequences of any new technology; however, he still recommends that we think about new technology and err, if necessary, on the side of “Thamusian skepticism” (Postman, 1992, p.5), and to not let the inventors be the only voice in determining the value of their inventions.
Bowers, C.A. et al. (2000). “Native people and the challenge of computers: Reservation schools, individualism, and consumerism,” American Indian 24(2), 182-199.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding media: the extensions of man.
Retrieved from: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the world. London: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from https://www.vista.ubc.ca/webct/RelativeResourceManager/Template/Imported_Resources/etec540demo_det_course_20070517151759/pdfs/postman-thamus.pdf