May 16th, 2002, Episode Two:  Cyberspace and Social Space

Alissa Altman is an American citizen and a Canadian immigrant. Her husband, Morey Altman is the director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. After meeting through an online group, Alissa and Morey became part of a growing number of people finding international love through the Internet.   Alissa is also one of the cofounders of a Yahoo group called "Immigration Canada" that offers a place of support for people who are interested in immigrating to Canada.  We interview her  for this week's show as we examined how the Internet is changing interactions among people in both the personal and political arenas.

Is the Internet a new paradigm leading to democratic Utopia or an evil, anti-social technology leading to isolation and the loss of civic-mindedness?  We discuss how cyberspace is contextualized by a consumer culture and oligopolistic tendencies. Peter F. Drucker asserts that we live in a Post Capitalist Society where information is power.  We examine this assertion in light of how the Internet looks 10 years after his book.  Who controls content on the Internet?  Can it be tamed by big business? Will Indy websites win the day?

Finally, we review Neil Postman's book Technopolgy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  Like many of the 19th Century philosophers facing the vast changes of industrialization, Postman laments the age of information, asserting that the sovereignty of technology over culture is leading to a number of social problems.  Have the machines won yet?  Read the transcript below.



Harvard History professor, Bruce Mazlish, in his book A New Science:  The Breakdown of Connections and the Birth of Sociology argues that during the industrialization of Europe in the late 18th century and early 19th century, two types of thinkers arose and influenced the birth of what we now know as sociology.  He calls these thinkers:  breakers and lamenters. 

  The breakers hailed a new scientific era free of the past tyrannies of state and church.  Science and rational thought were going to save mankind and move it into a world under the control of humans – a world where dignity and freedom were possible as long as we learned to be rational.

The lamenters feared industrialization and what came to be known as capitalism.  They saw the pastoral life increasingly being swallowed up by urban blight.  Social relationships were breaking down.  Human connections were falling apart.  Extended families were disintegrating, leaving selfish individuals with no sense of civility.  Poverty, disease, fear and exploitation were the results of industrialization:




A poem by William Wordsworth, written in 1806


THE world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.



Science has become a much more complicated and controversial subject since the early 19th century.  In the 20th century, along side great accomplishments, a  high-spirit of invention produced death machines, world wars, toxic waste dumps, genetically altered food, and cloned sheep.  We continue to see rapid changes in technologies and inventions, but we are jaded, no longer impressed.  Or we are scared of the implications of science out of control. With each new technology comes doubts about what it all means, where it all leads.  Science has become Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – two minds from the same persona:  one brilliant, the other insane.

Neil Postman’s cultural critique: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology reminds me of Mazlish’s lamenters.  Postman longs for the good old days when things were simpler.  Ironically, Postman is lamenting the 19th Century’s age of science, not the pastoral countryside, but the age of invention and reason.

Postman divides societies up into three types:  Tools, Technocracy and Technopoly.  Tool societies have the simplest technologies and rely heavily upon human labour to survive.  Technocracies are more technologically advanced that Tool societies, but the technology remains under the control of society.  Technopolies, however, lose their control over technology.  People respect technology qua technology with little thought of why it is better or what purpose it has.  It’s the latest thing, so it must be cool:



Postman writes:

Quote: Technocracy gave us the idea of progress, and of necessity loosened our bonds with tradition—whether political or spiritual.  Technocracy filled the air with promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organization.    Technocracy did not completely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds.  Technocracy subordinated these worlds – yes, even humiliated them—but it did not render them totally ineffectual.  … Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World.  It does not make them illegal.  It does not make them immoral.  It does not even make them unpopular.  It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.  And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements.  Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy. Unquote.



After establishing this taxonomy of societies and asserting that the United States is the only technopoly in existence as of the writing of the book in 1993, Postman makes his case for technopoly being the source of a number of social problems:  iatrogenic disease, injury and death; alienation in relationships; poor human judgment; dumbing down of intellectuals; over-valuation of science; loss of symbols; and the loss of a foundation for education.  The picture he paints is a dismal one indeed. 

There are many ideas in the book that resonate with me.  I do think that science has become too powerful a symbol in western society.  There is little examination of the information we receive and we are not teaching young people to think for themselves.  Schools are becoming more and more a method of social control and less and less a place where people learn to question authority, demand an understanding of not only “what” but “how and “why.”   I agree that teaching such things as the history of science and semantics ought be as common as reading, writing and arithmetic.

There is no question in my mind that a “technological imperative” exists in medicine, communications and transportation.  If we CAN do it, we think we should do it.  Human cloning and genetic engineering are probably the scariest manifestations of science getting ahead of itself.  When Dolly, the cloned sheep, made headlines in 1997, I thought to myself, “the world as we know has just ended.”  Now scientists are discussing when, not if, human cloning will happen. 

Even in the nine years since the publication of Technopoly, the world has changed in many ways.  In 1993, only 600 websites existed with only 2 million hosts and 28,000 domain names.  Mosaic was the new software that allowed graphics to be viewed by some users and Internic was formed by NSF to handle the cataloguing of Internet services and websites.  I had text-based e-mail through the university on a telephone modem and for the first time ever, I didn’t have to have the phone company come and put in a special line.  Windows 95 did not exist.  CD-ROMs were not standard on computers.  A big hard drive had 50 megabytes.  Pentiums were the big buzz in high-speed computers because they had the promise of delivering over 100 megahertz of speed to the computer. 

There are now over 40 million websites on the worldwide web with over 160 million hosts and 1 million, 600 hundred thousand (1,600,000) domain names.  My computer has 1.7 gig megahertz clock speed and a 40 gig hard drive and it is not the latest or the greatest.  I regularly send photos via e-mail.  And, well, I’m recording, editing and producing this broadcast using computers and software.  In fact, you may even be listening on a computer.

The rates of change are staggering to contemplate.  They are especially staggering when I consider that most of the world still hasn’t caught up (if up is the correct term).  My friend, Tish, has on her website the following quote by the writer, Pico Iver:  May we remember, as we log on, that half the world's people have never used a telephone, and recall, as we chatter, that most of those around us have no chance to speak or move as they choose.”

Even if this is exaggerated, it is true that the term “world” in World Wide Web is more hopeful than accurate. 

So as I thought about technology and it’s place in society while reading Postman’s book, I wanted badly to agree with him.  But I had this gnawing sense of something being off-kilter to his analysis.  I was waiting for a punch line that never quite came.  I wanted to see more about how technology could help.  I wanted to talk about the people who were being left out:  women, people of colour, third-world nations.  I wanted to talk about the advernet and how questions of intellectual property and spamming junk e-mail were ruining things. Where was capitalism?  Where was racism?  Where was sexism? Where was anything that indicated that these things were not happening in a technological vacuum?

Postman often comes up to the edge of these things.  His discussion of the great symbol drain and the place of advertising in cheapening the meaningful things in American culture is promising, but his desire to indict technology gets in the way:



Postman writes:

Quotes: In the process, a fundamental principle of capitalist ideology was rejected:  namely, that the producer and the consumer were engaged in a rational enterprise in which consumers made choices on the basis of a careful consideration of the quality of a product and their own self-interest.  This, at least, is what Adam Smith had in mind.  But today, the television commercial, for example, is rarely about the character of the products.  It is about the character of the consumers of products.  … The business of business becomes pseudo-therapy; the consumer, a patient reassured by psychodramas.  What this means is that somewhere near the core of Technopoly is a vast industry with license to use all available symbols to further the interests of commerce, by devouring the psyches of consumers. …  In putting it this way, I mean to say that mass advertising is not the cause of the great symbol drain.  Such cultural abuse could not occurred without the technologies to make it possible and world-view to make it desirable.  In the institutional form of a world-view that sees tradition as an obstacle to its claims.  There can, of course, be no functioning sense of tradition without a measure of respect for symbols.  Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgement of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them.  Unquote.



Postman wants to hold onto his traditions dearly and like Mazlish’s lamenters, he sees a world he wants changing faster than he wants it to change and changing in ways he does not want it to change.  His unquestioning devotion to primacy of science and reason seems out of place with his assertion that technology for technology’s sake will lead to social upheaval.  It is his blind spot, in my opinion, because he does not address the fundamental problem of science and technology as it has been used to further the cause of imperialism, including American imperialism.  His assumption of progress and his basic three-fold taxonomy of societies reflect the worn-out assumptions of westerners that theirs is the superior society, that theirs is the superior world view and that somehow the rest of the world wants to be just like them.  Take away these assumptions and add a critique of the long history of colonization and hegemonic techniques in and by America and you see that it isn’t the technology that is causing these problems.  It’s the fabric of American society itself.  Like Mazlish’s lamenters, Postman longs for a time that never really existed and symbols that long ago lost their meanings.



This ends another episode of First Person, Plural on CFUV-101.9 FM, 104.3 on cable, and for those of you living in the Technopoly, on the World Wide Web.  We hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more about the social world around you.  See you next Thursday at noon.   

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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