We Live In A Technopoly
Tech platforms were supposed to create order. So why is everything chaotic?
Our modern web platforms operate on a shared governing theory that technology can create order from chaos. Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Before Facebook’s IPO, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that, beyond its goal to “make the world more open and connected,” it sought to make people’s lives better and easier by giving them the power to organize their relationships, whether personal, economic, or political. The platform internet that began in the early 2000s, and that has since increasingly become the prism through which we experience life, promised one thing: that we would have control over information.
Why did the opposite occur? Why does it now feel like we live in a confusing world where we have little power at all?
Nearly two decades into building a platform-mediated society, things feel less organized than ever, and the users who were promised an ordered world — that’s us — seem powerless. Powerless to enact change. Powerless to make sense of things. And perhaps most importantly, powerless, too, to free ourselves from our technology and in particular the platforms we’ve adopted. Meanwhile, our connections to one another and to our communities feel frayed, even near to breaking altogether (even before a pandemic separated us further). And instead of having access to clear and useful information, we suffer from context collapse, unable to decipher the difference between fact and fiction or even, in extreme cases, what constitutes reality.
This is the world cultural critic Neil Postman foresaw in the early 1990s that we were in danger of creating. The fundamental mistake we’ve made, Postman wrote, was in believing in a false assumption about information: that it was inherently good, and that the more we had, the better things would become — that there was a positive relationship, even, between information and reason. While this might be true to some extent, Postman argued, it has its limit. And even as early as 1992, he felt we were hitting it.
The problem, as Postman saw it, was our increasing tendency to look to technology to give us meaning — something Postman argued took root first in the 19th-century, a time of “spectacular” technological development that coincided with “old sources of belief com[ing] under siege” from the likes of Nietzche, Marx, Freud, and Darwin. “Amid the conceptual debris,” Postman wrote, “there remained one thing to believe in — technology.” This, he argued, was most pronounced in America, a society founded in part on the perpetual search for the new.
By the early 1990s, America, Postman said, was what he called a technopoly, a society whose culture “seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology” — a culture, in other words, that is subservient to technology. “Those who feel most comfortable in a technopoly,” Postman wrote, “are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity’s supreme achievement by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved.”
Crucially, a technopoly is “fuelled” by information, and exists when the “tie between information and human purpose has been severed” — that is, when information “appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning or purpose.” This disconnection between information and human purpose happens when there is so much information, normal control mechanisms become incapable of dealing with it, Postman said.
We find ourselves traveling in circles, forever bewildered and incapable of thinking of a new way forward.
“One way of defining a technopoly is to say it is what happens when the defenses against information glut have broken down…It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and human purpose,” Postman continued. “The effort is mostly doomed to failure.” Social institutions, which are based on creating meaning out of information — sometimes, even, by deliberately limiting the amount or type of information we receive — begin to collapse under a wave of information overload.
At the extreme, we reach a state of meaninglessness. But even before this stage, life inside a technopoly is lived in a state of general confusion, because, since we depend on technology to provide clarity — and given technology’s basis on increased information creation — our search for coherence only further compounds our uncertainty.
As the volume of information and the frequency of its output accelerated into the end of the 20th Century, we built and began using tools that did the exact opposite of what we needed them to do — we just didn’t realize it. Worse still, no matter their stated promises, the platforms depend on perpetuating this state of confusion for profit. The more we turn to them to provide meaning, the more they learn about us and about what we’re looking for, the longer they can keep us searching, solidifying the technopoly even as we look to escape it. We find ourselves traveling in circles, forever bewildered and incapable of thinking of a new way forward. We keep looking for control and order, but we will find only further chaos.
“When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown of psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs,” Postman wrote. “Without defences, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.”