An Interaction with Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1993)

On Monday September 17th 2012 Apple announced that orders in the first twenty four hours, for its new iPhone 5, had reached over two million units. Most analysts had estimated that sales would be in the 1.5 million range. Apple will not be able to deliver against these orders on time because their production facilities just cannot keep up with demand. By Christmas of this year, sales are expected to exceed twelve million units. For Neil Postman, the author of Technopoly, this smart phone feeding frenzy is another indication that our Western, and particularly North American, culture has been surrendered to technology.  Postman’s writing comes from a perspective of loss. He does not see many benefits from this new regime and, in fact, enumerates many casualties along the way. One of the biggest losers in the age of Technopoly, according to the author, is organized religion, the church.

Postman describes a world in which the influence of the church has been, and continues, to decline. Pointing to the power that the church was able to wield during the tool using age, the beginning of its decline in the age of technocracy, particularly with the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg, he proposes a trajectory of redundancy as we continue into an age where information has become the god of the masses. Postman envisions a bleak future for religion in general and the Christian church in North America in particular. Most sociologists would agree with Postman’s analysis of the decline of both adherence and influence that is being experienced by the traditional mainline church. The question needs to be asked, however, is the church in its traditional form worth saving? Is the real issue that the church has failed in its mission to be relevant in the world, or is the current culture destroying the church?

In Acts 1:8, just before his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power through the Holy Spirit and that they would become his witnesses both in places that were familiar to them, Jerusalem and Judea, but also in unfamiliar and alien places, Samaria and the ends of the earth. He doesn’t tell them to bring their culture along with them; in fact the book of Acts relates a number of instances where debate over the need for maintaining Hebrew tradition, and law, led to the understanding that these were not essential parts of the message. The gospel message was to be made relevant to the culture in which it was delivered. Paul demonstrates this principle in Athens as he recognizes the deity worshipping culture which had set up an alter to an unknown god, just so that none are left out, and uses this as his springboard to share the gospel in this culture. While the New Testament does present us with a gospel that is redemptive in nature and does cause change in lives and societies, it does not provide a specific picture of what a proper Christian community or society should look like. It gives general illustrations of the loving (1 Corinthians 13), unified (Philippians 2), generous (2 Corinthians 9), nature of such communities and gives direction as to the attributes of its leaders (1 Timothy 3), families (Ephesians 5), and gatherings (1 Corinthians 14), but it leaves the culture to form the character of the institution.

Postman seems to be saying that the shift that has taken place from tool using to technocracy to the Technopoly now upon us, is too much for the Christian church to handle. The same could be said of the atrocities of the Roman Empire, the indiscretions of the medieval church, the attacks of the Enlightenment, the insidious spread of Marxism, and yet, the Church has survived with its message of hope and restoration. Survival has not always been pretty. It has been, and is being persecuted, maligned, and marginalized, but it has continued to live and be effective in the liminal space between the sacred and the profane. The societal changes, Postman describes as a result of the rise of Technopoly, are certainly real and must be recognized, but to try to hold the church outside of the flow is unrealistic. Christ sends us into the entire world, not just the parts that fit our way of thinking.

While the church is called to be culturally relevant it is also called to be counter cultural, to act prophetically in pointing out injustice in the world. Jesus certainly did this in his ministry and the description of the American Technopoly resistance fighter provided by Postman is likely a good place for many churches to begin. In this list he does not suggest that the resistance fighter, in this case the church, needs to turn its back on the advances of technocracy or Technopoly, but rather, we need to understand where our priorities lie. We cannot allow our craving for information, for the next poll, the next research breakthrough, to take the place of our love of God and our neighbor. We need to be able to hold on to the basis of our faith while making use of the tools of  Technopoly, and the cultural norms of this era, to share the message of hope that we carry. We need to act as resistance fighters inside the system, defending the weak and helpless who are being left behind, trampled upon. We need to learn new techniques and be willing to leave the old and redundant ones behind. Our institutions may need to change, our methods might need to be different, our way of being may become unrecognizable, but our mission and our master are still the same. We are still to be salt and light in the world.

Postman’s book presents a cynical view of the world and culture in which we live, a world where sales of the iPhone 5 makes headlines and the homeless and helpless do not. He looks back at simpler times with fondness, even yearning for a return to the tool using era of the middle ages. In the final paragraph of the book he recognizes that there is no turning back but holds out the hope that, by somehow distancing ourselves from the Technopoly in which we now live, we will be able to criticize and modify it. This is the role of the church as well; to be in the world; but not of it; to criticize the injustices of our day; to live in the culture in a way that models love for God and for others. Technopoly is here, God and His church can be a relevant part of it.




5 thoughts on “An Interaction with Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1993)

  1. I enjoy reading your perspectives on the interaction between our technological advances and faith. Have you read Shane Hipps’ book Flickering Pixels? He looks at some of the same premises as Postman, but concludes with a much more positive outlook.

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