Have you ever wondered why technology seems to rule our lives? Technology — and most importantly, the internet, grand marshal of the technology parade — has permeated our culture to an unfathomable degree. From TikTok stars dictating fashion trends, to therapy podcasts giving out “quick fixes” to intergenerational trauma, and pornstars giving sex advice to married couples (think about that one for a minute), almost all of our information comes from the technology we hold in our hands, put in our packets, and watch on our screens.
It’s puzzling to think how we got here. Or maybe you’ve never even sat down to think about it. The internet was invented in 1983, and just forty years later, it’s the dominant cultural force of our lifetimes. Move over, American presidents, philosophers, and rock stars… that is, unless you have a serious social media presence.
Neil Postman, in Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, attempts to tackle the causal chain of technology taking over culture. He breaks down the causal chain into three components. First, technology is a tool. As tools permeate society, society becomes a technocracy: a co-evolving body with technology feeding back on society and its values, but not necessarily dominating it. The final stage bears the title of the book: technopoly, where technology dictates culture to its users.
Establishing such a causal chain requires historical scope and nuance, both of which are abundant in Technopoly. But in my view, what makes this work so impactful is that it was written in 1992! The “technology” that Mr. Postman goes on about is television, an incredibly “primitive” technology relative to the internet. (Until very recently, I didn’t own a television in my apartment. Who needs a TV if you have a laptop?)
I imagine at the time Mr. Postman was written off as a kook, an over-worried “boomer” (to borrow a phrase) that needs to shut up, move aside, and embrace the golden age of technological development.
Yet, read today, Technopoly reads like a prophecy of what would come in the twenty-first century. Indeed, television was only the beginning.
Take for example one of the central ideas in the book: that completing a task using technology feeds back on the very idea of the task in the first place. Before I can illustrate this point more clearly, a brief aside on computer optimization problems is warranted.
When computers are asked to “find the best” of something, they tend to do so by “optimizing” (i.e., by finding the highest possible value of) what’s called an “objective function.” The “objective function” has some number of inputs, and the inputs that optimize the “objective function” are the “optimal” inputs.
To illustrate this point, think about nutrition, and more specifically diet (this removes the exercise “variable”). Your overall health is the “objective function.” If asked, a computer will “optimize” nutrition for you: it’ll derive, based on some set of preferences (are you trying to gain muscle or lose weight?) the optimal protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake. So, in principle, if you eat those amounts of macronutrients, you’d be a very healthy individual in the eyes of the computer (and perhaps, in your own eyes as well).
This comes with limitations, but the underlying idea is the key bit: if you give a computer a problem to solve, it will (1) define an objective function and (2) find the set of inputs that results in the maximum of said objective function.
With this framework in mind, we can now illustrate Mr. Postman’s thesis with a modern example: dating.
When I arrived in New York City for a semester-long stay at Columbia Business School, I met a young actress, and over drinks and pizza we got to talking about dating (alas, it was not talk of us dating).
“There are a lot of young, beautiful women in NYC that are looking for partners,” she told me. Wide-eyed, I asked her, “What would I do to meet them?” Her response:
Download Hinge and get to work.
Dating in the modern age is practically indivisible from dating apps. On its own, one might argue, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How else would you find as many possible singles in your immediate vicinity and try to go on dates with the best of them?
But this very question is exactly Postman’s point: if you use dating apps to date, you’re essentially viewing dating as a computer would; that is, as an optimization problem, where the very idea of dating is to optimize your dating “preferences,” or in other words, your dating “objective function.” The inputs? Income, beauty, sex appeal, number of children desired, religious convictions, political leanings, vaccination status… the list as endless as it is varied for the user.
So instead of meeting a charming stranger at your church, gym, or some other such meeting spot, by using a dating app you are, explicitly or implicitly, defining an objective function (your dating preferences), finding individuals that maximize that function (finding the “optimal inputs” to your objective function) and going on dates with them. You’re process is that of a computer, up until the actual in-person date occurs.
Mr. Postman resoundingly concludes this “computer-fication” of our very ideas is a bad thing, and that we should responsibly consider this dynamic whenever new technology enters the fray. I would be much more inclined to agree with the latter than the former. It’s hard to argue against being aware of this dynamic in our lives and how it can quickly become toxic. Pornography shouldn’t be your idea of real-life sex, Instagram shouldn’t be your idea of real-life popularity, and Reddit shouldn’t be your idea of real-life community. But that it is on the whole bad requires a bit more careful thought than I think Mr. Postman is prepared to provide here. (For example, a few of my gay and bisexual friends “confirmed” their sexuality by watching gay porn, so at least in this case porn has some societal benefit.)
I admit, I am in the bag for Mr. Postman’s writing. I am a proud technology skeptic — I have no social media presence, with my only online presence being this website (comments turned off, thank you very much), and don’t even have an internet browser on my phone — so Mr. Postman patting my skepticism on the back triggers some deep confirmation bias for me. But even with this in mind, I would still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in figuring out why the hell the internet is so influential in culture, and especially how it feedbacks on our ideas in the first place. Mr. Postman has a lot to say, and all of it, in my view, is relevant for providing a lens on the world today.
Rating: Technopoly is the optimal input to any tech-skeptic’s “tell me why technology should be treated with the utmost caution” objective function.
Pokémon card for this book: I thought the Lost City card fit for Technopoly because Mr. Postman argues, at least in part, that we’re a bit lost as a society.