questioning technologyDisappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century by O. B. Hardison

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

The polarities of boundlessness and limits have helped to define the human experience. Although men and women have always lived with infinite longings, at one time they could not avoid learning—most of them from religion, a few from philosophy, almost all from the facts of their material lives—that limits were part of the natural order of things. Under the aegis of modernity the spirit of boundlessness has found a more congenial home. It has never seemed so healthy or expressed itself so vividly as it does now, in the awesome skill and power of technology at the close of the twentieth century.

Technology’s impact is most commonly perceived in terms of dazzling expertise or immediate danger: the medical miracle, the environmental disaster. But its longer-term and greater significance lies in its shaping of thought and behavior. In the United States there can scarcely be found any part of the culture-from the way children are taught to perceive the world, to the manner in which political campaigns are managed, to the most intimate relations of private life—that remains uninvaded by technological imperatives.

The connection between technology and culture, or more precisely the exponentially growing impact of the former upon the latter, is therefore a subject that will unquestionably receive ever-closer scrutiny, and it has been examined carefully by 0. B. Hardison and by Neil Postman. While the two authors’ views could not be more dissimilar, both of their studies are worthy of attention.

In Disappearing Through the Skylight, his last book before his death in 1990, Hardison enthusiastically depicts technology’s role in the “disappearance” (in the sense of radically changed perceptions) of nature, art, science, lan­guage, tradition, history—and ultimately, he predicts, humanity itself. In this book, which was well received, he ranges broadly and with impressive familiarity over the course of twentieth-century culture, focusing on its interaction with technology. A few among the many topics covered are computer art, computer music, Dada, artificial intelligence, Bauhaus architecture, robotic systems, and fractal versus Euclidian geometry. His discussions are invariably literate and informed.

Hardison’s general viewpoint is nicely caught in a passage at the beginning of his discussion of “transparent language” (language not naturally evolved but created). He remarks that while language is a set of conventions developed by a particular group over generations, today “language increasingly refers to a world that no longer exists.” This being the case, “it is natural to ask how language can be made transparent or at least pushed in the direction of transparency.” One may reasonably wonder why Hardison considers it “natural” for human beings to conclude that their languages have today been rendered so useless that a “transparent”—newly devised, universal—language is required, especially when his following pages on the subject reveal nothing so clearly as the stupendously difficult if not grotesquely absurd nature of the endeavor. But what intrigues him is posing the problem (assuming it to be such) and pointing toward a radical and potentially universal solution.

The development of computers seems as significant to Hardison as biological evolution; in his view, one is an extension of the other. During World War II one of the first working digital computers was called Colossus; large, clumsy, using vacuum tubes, it reminds Hardison of “the earliest protozoans,” and signals an early stage of a new life form. With stunning rapidity, computers evolved to transistors and then to silicon chips. He marvels: “Carbon life took more than a billion years to progress from single celled to multi-celled creatures. Silicon devices managed something similar in twenty-five years.” This has been part of an exhilarating process he calls “the evolution of silicon intelligence.”

Hardison’s background does not suggest such unambiguous delight in technology’s accomplishments. A professor of English with several scholarly works to his credit, including a study of Renaissance literature, he was for many years director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C. Technology’s potential had not always cheered him; in an interview given around the time Disappearing Through the Skylight was published, he confessed that he had once been deeply troubled by such matters as “atomic annihilation.” But, he continued, “I just got tired of being a pessimist.” Indeed, his book testifies to a radiant optimism.

When Hardison became tired of being pessimistic he apparently also wearied of the idea of tradition. He expounds reasons why we should see roots and permanence and identity as hopelessly antiquated notions. He disdains the particular, proclaims the universal, and technology, like science, is committed to the universal. With the spread of technology the world becomes more homogeneous, so that styles in architecture and automobiles and music and food and dress become “world styles.” Pointing to signs that not everyone else interprets so optimistically, Hardison says buildings are everywhere alike today and so are the people who inhabit them; as these people move from one shopping mall, one airport, one motel to another of the same kind, their location never really changes. Home is anywhere, for “modern man is becoming universal,” and “he begins to suspect home in the traditional sense is another name for limitations.”

The last remark brings us to an essential point, though one not so much emphasized by Hardison as simply taken for granted, implicit in his very conception of reality: limits of every kind are by definition obstacles for man to overcome. Hardison is hardly alone in this outlook, and in the atmosphere of our time it no longer seems an occasion for surprise when a man with a deep understanding of the past and a long immersion in Shakespeare can yet display antipathy to the idea of limitations. For Hardison, history itself is an obstacle to be overcome. We now know, he says, that reality is not “out there” in nature but “in here” in the mind, and we realize that we inhabit “a world radically emptied of history.” This is to be welcomed, not resisted. “The disappearance of history is…a liberation.”

Much to be welcomed also is “silicon intelligence,” since human beings create so many problems (water pollution, deforestation, etc.), and break down so often (before finally dying). Silicon devices share none of these failings. Hardison thinks it altogether likely that by the end of the twenty-first century man’s dominance of the earth will have ended, and he will have been surpassed on the evolutionary scale by his own machine creations.

This event, the reader may be relieved to learn, need not mean “the disappearance of man as an organism, only as an idea.” Hardison reflects upon a familiar insect and offers this solace: “The cockroach has survived for half a billion years…. It has prospered in spite of the most aggressive attacks mounted against it…. Even if future machines launched an all-out war on carbon man, the war might be no more successful than man’s war on cockroaches.” In any case, nothing humans now do can alter their fate; it’s much too late to pull the plug on the machines. Hardison apparently wants his readers to join him in contemplating serenely a future in which silicon devices have learned to reproduce themselves, and float indestructibly throughout eternity “in the empty spaces between planets.”

Postman is not serene about technology, but neither is he a Luddite. As a professor of communications and author of a number of books on cultural topics he is aware of technology’s assets, and agrees that it “makes life easier, cleaner, and longer.” It also undermines cultural foundations. Like Hardison he is impressed with technology’s relentless colonization of culture in the twentieth century. But what Hardison acclaims as liberation, Postman reckons as loss.

He finds it unsettling that new technologies not only supply humans with innovative tools but also “alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like.” This has always been true, and as humans have adapted to change, great cultural enrichment has frequently followed; for example, the invention of writing was one of the most fertile technological innovations. But Postman believes that what we experience now is something different and more ominous, for “the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity.”

He broadly identifies three types of cultures: tool-using, technocracies, and technopolies. The last, a word he coins and uses for his book’s title, thus far applies only to the United States. Earlier tool-using cultures such as medieval Europe did not completely control technology, but contained its influence; tools were integrated into the culture and did not attack its dignity and integrity. All tool-using cultures are “theocratic or, if not that, unified by some metaphysical theory.” Technocracy emerged first in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century, though it had been fully outlined by Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth. Not actually a scientist himself, Bacon heralded a new society of progress and power with science as the source of its strength. Bacon’s vision ultimately took shape, and Postman does not slight its achievements. The vast majority of people in medieval Europe were poor and powerless, and technocracy helped greatly to improve both conditions; it “brought into being an increased respect for the average person.”

But the technocratic principle of science in the service of progress and power produced a dynamism that could no longer be contained by a traditional, primarily religious, culture. Now tools were not integrated into the culture but attacked it. However, the resources of the older culture were strong enough to prevent it from being totally overwhelmed, even in the technology-dazzled United States. Because nineteenth-century Americans, Postman says, “knew that science and technology did not provide philosophies by which to live,” they maintained an uneasy coexistence between traditional values and technological change, the strains of which may be seen in the pages of Cooper, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and Hawthorne, among others.

The possibility of coexistence had faded by the early twentieth century. What Postman labels technopoly, but what may more accurately be called the new, Progressive Era worldview of urban elites, insisted upon new standards: the primary goal of thought and labor was efficiency, what could not be measured had no value, and the public should be guided by experts. Postman observes: “Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself…. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth…Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy.”

Despite the industrialization of the nineteenth century it was still possible to keep from being fully enveloped within the thought-world of machinery and technique. But what emerged in America by the twentieth century was a reductionist, imperializing technological consciousness that claimed the right of exclusive arbitration over all decisive questions, including most importantly that of determining truth. This is what Postman sees as the great threat of modern technology. It is surely rare today that a New York University professor speaks as follows of the losing side in the Scopes trial:

These “fundamentalists” were neither ignorant of nor indifferent to the benefits of science and technology. They had automobiles and electricity and machine-made clothing…. What wounded them was the assault that science made on the ancient story from which their sense of moral order sprang… The battle settled the issue, once and for all: in defining truth, the great narrative of inductive science takes precedence over the great narrative of Genesis, and those who do not agree must remain in an intellectual backwater.

Cultures must have narratives, Postman says; if good ones are not available, bad ones will do (he points to Nazi Germany). The older narratives, full of rich symbols, sustained traditional, coherent worldviews. Very little in America—and less and less elsewhere—support that possibility any longer. (Hardison, of course, revels in the loss of narrative coherence, of stability. Nevertheless, most people who inhabit cultures dwell outside the academy’s precincts, and few of them will be able to watch with Hardison’s detached irony as everything meaningful in their lives disappears through the skylight. Many of them have searched and will continue to search, sometimes in unlovely corners, for other sources of meaning.)

In his last chapter Postman feels obliged to put forward what he terms “a reasonable response (hardly a solution) to the problem of living in a developing Technopoly.” He proposes some curriculum reforms for the schools which, in the improbable event of their ever being adopted, would certainly be more helpful than most of those suggested by our numerous educational commissions. He also offers a brief description of “the loving resistance fighter.” Postman being no advocate of violence, this is not a portrait of an eco-guerrilla but a list of principles that run counter to those of prevailing technological attitudes. His resistance fighters are people who are “suspicious of the idea of progress,” who “refuse to accept efficiency as the pre­eminent goal of human relations,” who “do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth,” and so on. Who can quarrel with such unexceptionable maxims? But since most people drawn to Postman’s book will probably find them already reflected in their own beliefs, the range of their practical effect may not be very wide.

Postman covers a good deal of already well-traversed territory, but does so with charm and intelligence. He speaks as a defender of humanistic learning and liberal democracy. He belongs to an old and honorable tradition of critics who have reproached Americans for their enthrallment with, and unquestioning acceptance of, technological innovation. But the voices of the tradition may have grown a little tired over the course of our history. In the middle of the nineteenth century Thoreau noted unhappily that the “devilish Iron Horse” had “muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot,” but his tone was never carping, and he even found some charm in his countrymen’s delight with the railroad. Thoreau knew the machine was here to stay, and although that fact posed a problem for him, in the end he found in nature his resolution. To be sure, a great deal of relatively unspoiled nature was still left to contemplate, and further more Thoreau’s resolution was only a private one. Half a century later Henry Adams could not discover even that; he presented the contrasting images of the Virgin and the Dynamo as signs of the profound decay of Western civilization. Now a century past Adams, we get hourly updates on the technological reconstruction of the universe.

It is understandable that Postman takes a dim view of developments, but at times he slightly loses focus. He discusses the computer at length and in the most acerbic tones. The computer “embodies all that Technopoly stands for;” it is our “dominant metaphor,” signaling that human beings are merely “thinking machines.” “It subordinates the claims of our nature, our biology, our emotions, our spirituality.” Perhaps; but on the other hand maybe a bit excessive. One may imagine readers generally sympathetic with Postman’s outlook considering this and some other instances in his book too narrowly insistent upon one-sided and uncompromisingly negative assessments of technology’s role.

Still, the fact that vast numbers of people on our planet see technology as no problem at all, but rather the supreme solution to the most urgent problems, must suggest to us the precarious trajectory of modernity’s narcotized boundlessness. So it is good to hear voices like Postman’s raised in warning, as they keep alive the honorable tradition of questioning technology.

But it is Hardison’s voice to which we should pay closer attention. Such voices, from such backgrounds, were once less common than now, and will be more common in the future. Hardison’s is the voice not of the technocrat but of the man of culture who has mastered a wide array of traditional learning, and has turned his gaze away from it to dream of a world of emerging machine consciousness, a world he believes, with splendid equanimity, is likely to turn human beings into the equivalent of cockroaches. It may be that the world of the future will not be able to quite achieve that feat. But with the technological conquest of the domains of nature and human experience now nearing completion, Hardison’s image should be kept in mind as a suggestion of at least a possibility, unless, in some manner now scarcely imaginable, a sense of limits is reborn.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1998).

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  1. The first author cited reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard, who produced sci-fi until he (actually) wrote there was more money in founding a religion, so he started Scientology. The technological ‘Hot Gospel’ isn’t so likely an English teacher’s Pauline conversion as a need to fill a savings account.

    The second writer makes a mistake similar to modern Keynesians, who argue that borrowing drives growth, instead of savings enables productiion. He believes that machines control us, rather than we make and control machines to do as we wish – why else build them? The problem, which I’ve describes here before, is that human wishes can be a path to evil, and both technology and prosperity encourage false hopes for happiness. No, your battery-powered gizmo hasn’t ruined your life, you have.

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