Technobabble and Civilization
Postman and Freud
Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
Sigmund Freud and Neil Postman have many theories relating to civilization and technology. In Neil Postman’s “The Judgement of Thamus in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology has quite a bit to say on the relationship between civilization and technology. Sigmund Freud in his book Civilization and Its Discontents, discusses much about the growth of civilization and also touches on how technology has an effect on civilization.
In “The Judgement of Thamus,” Postman touches on the idea that technology is neither good nor bad for society, but that it is both good and bad. It adds as well as detracts from culture. This chapter opens with him discussing the story of the king Thamus talking to the god Theuth, an inventor. Theuth had creating writing and he was happy to expose how amazing the technology is and how much it will benefit man kind. Theuth spoke of the wonders of storing and sharing wisdom and memory through this invention. Thamus countered him by stating that an inventor doesn’t know that his technology is good or bad, that an inventor is inherently biased towards his invention. Thamus specifically discredited the idea of writing by stating that he believed that this invention of writing will encourage people to stop practicing memory and become more forgetful, and that it will cause people to depend on external things as a device to aid in recollection. He further complains that writing will help wisdom and memory spread, which isn’t inherently bad, but by doing so, people who do not fully understand the wisdom of the words without proper instruction, they will be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom” (Postman, 1993). As we know, writing has opened up an incredible amount of opportunity for humanity, but it is also clear that we have lost some things, such as memory, but the gains have been immense. Postman also claims that technology really needs to be looked at from both sides. He even admits that he often looks for the dissenting opinion when looking at new technologies, but feels that it is important to show reasonable counter to optimism. Furthermore, he finds that technologies are often adopted without much realization and results in new technologies, the winners, beckoning people of old technology, the losers, to join in with them. Espousing all the benefits of the new versus the old.
In Civilization and its Discontents Freud tries to explain some of the actions of why people do what they do, how people have come to how they are, and, especially, how to obtain the happiness that people seek. Throughout this work Freud makes many claims. He finds that people evolve much like cities. Over the course of time, cities are demolished, burned down, or simply destroyed and rebuilt slowly over time during peace. He specifically mentions how ancient cities that still exist are largely built upon ruins of itself. Some of these things go away completely, but most stay either hidden or adapted into the works and buildings that go on in the city. These things become something new, yet maintain something old. He says this in human memories and physiology. He explains how puberty results in the loss of the thymus gland and that it is replaced by connective tissue, and how an adults completed bone contains the child hood bone that had been there before it, and how new experiences and, specifically, memories of experiences merge and form new thoughts that bring people to who they are at the present. Much like cities. Freud also found that, however civilization is defined, protections are sought from dangers that come from the suffering that comes from its own civilization. This seems particularly interesting given the fact that we know it is true, at least at a basic level. For example, civilization started herding animals that lead to the creation of, and increased spread of, new diseases which we then needed to protect ourselves against ("Humans Change the World", 2016). Freud also, like Postman, found that technology doesn’t so much bring happiness as it brings change to humanity where good and bad both take place, not simply one or the other. Specifically, Freud mentions how if certain technology didn’t get created, other technology wouldn’t be needed to maintain happiness. If the locomotive never carried people across continents, people would likely have stayed closer to home more often which would remove the need for long distance communication in order to solve the anxiety about distant friends and family. One thing Freud seemed especially insistent about is that technology brings people closer to godlihood. To make a primal example, the discovery and control of fire brought the human race from being weak creatures struggling to survive, to a species with the ability to see the world burn. Freud also found beauty to be fascinating because of how utterly useless it is. It does not assist in survival in any obvious way, so our desire for beauty is a bit of a mystery. He also claims that cleanliness is also not found in nature, yet humans seem to have a passion for that, but he did find that order is certainly a part of nature. He finds order to be incredibly useful for everything that humans do, yet paradoxically, it’s one of the hardest things to teach people to pay attention to due to their natural carelessness.
These two writers are certainly very opinionated and clearly have thought about the issues at hand that they discuss. Both Freud and Postman seem to agree that technology isn’t a “good or bad” issue, but a “good and bad” issue. This, to me, is clearly obvious. We see it today with the introduction of the Internet. I’m one of those strange kids who was born in the mid 80’s. Born just early enough to grow up during the transition of the world to the Internet and for computers to go from things only hobbyists and businessmen used, to every family having a computer, and finally to every person having an overpriced super restricted computer they carelessly put in their pockets. I was particularly interested in computers from a young age, so I was able to see the transition of society from the eyes of a person who understood what was actually going on. This alone could be a paper of its own, but to keep my example brief I will restrict it to one thing that the Internet has done. It has given us access to a huge database of jobs where we can find anything we want, anywhere in the world, and, if we desire and have the ability, take that job and move to wherever it is. Wonderful, but a huge drawback is the increased competition. A company may have settled for a local worker looking to get his start back in the early 90’s, but now many companies are hoping for talent from anywhere in the country can come serve them which makes it much harder for people without much experience to gain it when competition is so steep. I’m also fully in agreement with much of what Postman has said about technology sneaking in, taking over, and changing who the winners and losers are. I don’t believe anyone could have expected the computers or the Internet to change the world in the profound ways that it has. Heck, Marion Zimmer Bradley in his book, The Colors of Space, predicted a futuristic world run by advanced civilizations who fly around in spaceships, but still use books to navigate space along side computer that take punchcards and spit out information on paper (Bradley et al., 2007). At the time the novel was written, this was the current state of computers, considering other technologies that existed at the time, I’m surprised the author didn’t think of something considering other technologies that existed at the time, such as televisions, but it goes to show that it is incredibly hard to foresee the future and the effects technology will have on it. Now, I must disagree with Freud's insistence that beauty is useless. If we think of its direct practical non-emotional value, it does seem rather useless. However, when we consider that humans are creative artful creatures, and that beauty inspires us, it seems to have a very practical value. Humans see beauty which inspires them for everything from creating great thing, to reproduction. Even some animals flaunt pretty colors in an effort to attract mates.
Freud and Postman certainly have many great, well thought out, theories. Postman fantastically lays out some of the effects of technology and civilization and poses the warning that we must look at things from more than one side. Freud seems to share some thoughts with Postman, but also finds a lot more specific to humans and civilization than such focus on technology. Both of these men have many theories that are both agreeable and disagreeable to myself, but to go through every theory we could write a book. In any case, many great ideas emanate from great people and we should consider them all to the best of our ability.
Bradley, M., Simão, A., Smallheer, J., Nelson, M., Savage, K., & Rose, L. (2007). The Colors of Space [Audio Book]. Retrieved from https://librivox.org/the-colors-of-space-by-marion-zimmer-bradley/
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents (pp. 1-99).
Humans Change the World. (2016). Retrieved from http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics/humans-change-world
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1st ed., pp. 1-17). New York: Knopf.