A Response to Postman’s Judgement of Thamus

Neil Postman, renowned American media critic and New York University professor, uses his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology to caution readers, especially the ‘enthusiastic multitudes’ about the impact technology has on an unsuspecting mind (Postman, 1992, p. 5). Postman passed away in 2003, but leaves behind in The Judgment of Thamus, an insidious warning that perhaps he himself did not fully understand, one that might be further and further distanced from the increasingly technologically minded human race. In a television interview on Book TV in which Postman is, ironically, using the very technology he critiques to promote Technopoly, he warns that sovereignty of social institutions is surrendered to technology and he cautions that Americans have ‘developed a new religion’, or belief system that progress is synonymous with technological innovation. Underpinning this is the quiet anxiety that human cognition is being irrevocably changed by a technologically dependent context (Postman, 2009).
Postman begins this chapter from Technopoly with a clever allusion to Plato’s Phaedrus in which Egyptian King Thamus speaks with Theuth, an ‘inventor of many things’, who endeavours to convince King Thamus that writing is useful and should be celebrated. Thamus remains unconvinced and cautions Theuth that writing will ultimately impoverish memory; moreover, in a depressing state of technological determinism, humans will only be able to remember items based on external stimuli extracting memory as opposed to humans being in the driver’s seat of recall. Dizzyingly, it is Plato, through Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus about this conversation between Thamus and Theuth that one core issue from Technopoly begins to emerge: the more humans rely on external technologies to function, the less mindful and objective they become about the extent to which the technology is needed and its impacts on the human condition.
Although not always successful, Postman attempts not to present himself as, what he terms, a ‘technophobe’. He states clearly that he is simply upholding a ‘dissenting voice…to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes’ (Postman, 1992, p. 5). He articulates that technology has its uses but interestingly does list any alongside the voices of Plato and Freud. Instead, he allows them to speak for him, thereby ironically using human technology in an attempt to elucidate his argument. He uses psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s voice to catalogue how technology helps humans keep in touch, but points out quickly if it was not for railways that enabled distance, the telephone would not be needed. As poet Robert Frost reminds, way leads on to way. This is where humans stand – at a forked road with the option to travel backwards or forwards with technology, and as Freud knew, the former is not an option.
Postman raises important issues in this chapter, one being that in an ecological sense, humans must be cognizant and expectant that change is imminent. He does not elaborate on what it is that needs to be ‘seen’ (1992, p. 5), but how can he? Postman is not an oracle, nor is anyone else. Research certainly points to changes in student attention spans, for example, but current research is contradicted by that which shows that cognitive processes such as perception, attention and executive control are increasing due to increased gaming time (Boot et al, 2008, p. 394-395). This is just one example but it points to how emergent the understanding of technological impact is. Postman raises another poignant worry that relates to the tragic championing of technologies that ultimately ‘intrude’, ‘track’, ‘control’ and ‘inundate’ upon individual freedoms (1992, p. 10). Postman’s argument weakens with this rhetorical question: ‘But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people?’ (1992, p. 10). Disappointingly, with this now hackneyed question, he does precisely what he suggested earlier that he does not do and focuses only on the biased, negative outcomes listed above. His main concern, however, is that people will ignorantly champion the very technology that may render them redundant, and this is a bitter pill of realism for many. Technology writer Antonio Regalado (2012) notes a decline in U.S. employment since 2009 even in the face of economic recovery, citing the term ‘technological unemployment’ as a root cause. Further, John Bohannon reports on current research that investigates the extent to which search engines like Google alter human memory systems. Results show that humans are more likely to recall location of information on a computer rather than the information itself (Bohannon, 2011, p. 277).These realities point to an interesting but worrying idea raised by Technopoly’s argument.
Neil Postman clearly cares about protecting the state of what it is to be human. He cautions a society of readers about the dichotomy of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The successful ‘worker’ will win a job, and the ‘winner’ will be that which can out-muscle an opponent, human or non-human. This competition matters to an ecologically minded argument because what we are left with, Postman asserts, is ‘a culture conspiring against itself’ (1992, p. 12), and this, if true, is truly distressing. Readers are left with vague warnings such as this that Postman has flagged, but are offered no hint of pro-activity, nor are they presented alternate paths, only with a depressing sense of Darwinian techno-survival of the fittest, and the disturbing image of the human race under a powerful hammer wielded perhaps by ourselves, or by our own construct (1992, p. 14). Daniel Chandler, in his essay Technological or Media Determinism, fully understands the complicated nature of this discussion, and reminds readers that ‘the use of complex and interacting technologies may have implications which are not always entirely intended or predicted’ (Chandler, 1995, Mechanistic Models). Postman voiced just this concern, a concern of ambiguity that media analysts, sociologists, psychologists, and educationalists still contend with. What must be respected from Postman’s writing is not his artful regurgitation of others’ worries, but his eerie foresight into how technological creations can alter a human ecosystem.

Works Cited

Bohannon, J. (2011). Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory. Science, 333, p. 277.

Boot, W., Kramer, A., Simons, D., Fabiani, M., & Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica, 129, 387-398.
Retrieved from: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/27654579/968610894/name/The%20effects%20of%20video%20game%20playing%20on%20attention,%20memory,%20and%20executive%20control.pdf

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online].
Retrieved, 25 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, The Judgement of Thamus. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (2009, October 19). Book TV: Neil Postman, ‘Technology’
Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbAPtGYiRvg

Regalado, A. (2012). When Machines Do Your Job. Retrieved from: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/428429/when-machines-do-your-job/

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