Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman and The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton look at how design and technology change both individual lives and the cultures of entire nations.
It can happen that, as Neil Postman writes, a “new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.” Yet simultaneously, Technopoly provides a crucial warning about our obsession with the new: “We had learned how to invent things, and the question of why we invent things receded in importance.”
For its part, The Shock of the Old provides us with two fascinating and terrifying examples of this receding “why.”
“In October 1942 the V-2 was successfully tested. Two years later, the first V-2 was fired in anger, and around twenty were being built a day. The V-2 `was a unique weapon, says its historian, Michael Neufeld, in that more people died producing it than died from being hit by it: at least 10,000 slave labourers perished in the course of production and around 5,000 from it. Nearly 6,000 V-2s were made so that, very crudely, it took two human lives to make a V-2 and each killed one person. It is estimated that instead of V-2s Germany could have built 24,000 fighter aircraft.”
“In the world as a whole, the motor vehicle is just behind malaria in the list of killers, a sobering measure of the significance of a technology. Three times as many people (nearly 200,000 out of a world total of around 1 million a year) die in Africa from car accidents as in the whole of Europe. In Africa the death rate per car on the road is up to forty times greater than in the rich countries.”
These are examples from the mechanical age, but we are now in a new era where change is caused by devices but also by data, the new oil. To a person with a computer everything looks like data. And people with data are obsessed with getting more of it and applying it to everything. Postman explains how in this context too the “why” is getting lost:
“Attend any conference on telecommunications or computer technology, and you will be attending a celebration of innovative machinery that generates, stores, and distributes more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before. To the question 'What problem does the information solve?' the answer is usually 'How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.'"
Just because we can, we will. But what is an alternative? Postman suggests that alternatives already exist in our societal structures: “Courts of law, the school, and the family are only three of several control institutions that serve as part of a culture’s information immune system.”
Oftentimes technology is painted as progress and but it can simply mean the generation of more objects or data in the world. And most worryingly, all three of Postman’s institutions for immunity are under severe attack right now.
Once ideas are out in the world it is very hard to put them back in the box but, if we work to strengthen our institutions, we can use them to shape these newly minted ideas toward Gandhi’s formulation: not for “mass production, but for production by the masses.”