Needed: A Humane Hand on the Controls

AMERICANS are a people of progress. They believe in taking a fresh look at problems and finding a better solution. If they can't fix that engine or cure that disease, just give them time and they will invent or discover an answer sooner rather than later. If it is a broken cotter pin, a broken society, or a broken heart, they can handle it with lots of hard work, money, and good-old-Yankee know-how.

Neil Postman, chair of the Department of Communications Arts at New York University and author of several best-selling books on culture, begs to differ with America's eternal can-do optimism. Technology has gotten the United States far, farther than any nation in history, he says, but at what price?

In his new book, "Technopoly," Postman warns that moral traditions that gave substance and purpose to American lives for centuries have been exchanged for a muddled view that depends on science to answer the questions of life and existence.

Postman is no cranky hermit who grouses from a mountain cabin, but a teacher who has taught students in a major city for three decades and finds that a large, essential piece is missing from the way Americans picture the world today. Pointing this out is a thankless, but necessary, job.

In 11 short, compact chapters, he shows how subtly the changes have occurred, how easy it is to miss the signs. He sees no conspiracy of old men who planned hundreds of years ago to siphon off the moral coherence that held the Western world together for millennia and replace it with a manic dependence on polls, inventions, and social management techniques.

Scientists like Galileo, Copernicus, and others simply exposed areas in the traditional world view that needed revision. However, like Voltaire in the French Revolution, they were hailed by later generations as heroes who intended to dismantle the whole thing.

New thinkers and lesser scientists constructed a new world view and elected another authority that was less humane, but more measured, precise, and manageable. A human became a machine that could be fixed like a car engine or modified like a home computer. The human sciences dragooned the laws of natural science to serve them, too. Unfortunately, extreme proponents of this approach built the crematoriums at Auschwitz.

The United States is the best example of a "technopoly" today, says Postman. American culture seems to feed on incessant streams of information of all kinds and would overwhelm society if not for a bureaucracy of experts who control the flow. He especially singles out medical and computer technologies as representing "a loss of confidence in human judgment and subjectivity." New innovations inspire greater confidence and more reliance on the auto-pilot program to handle things. It takes a health-care sca ndal or computer virus to get that human hand back on the controls, he says.

Postman gently breaks the news that we have been on the wrong road for awhile, but we can get back to the right one if enough "loving resistance fighters" point this out. "A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things ... that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural." Greater balance and a broad education that puts technology back into perspective in the big picture, and acknowledges the humanizing effect of reli gion, will go a long way to achieving this, says Postman.

Postman doesn't want to break new ground or grind up all machines as much as he wants to reclaim the old family estates where people lived in greater community and deeper understanding of life, nature, and the Creator. His style is comfortable, his exposition incisive, and his reasoning hard to ignore. While there is no imminent danger that machines will soon run our lives, Postman believes people are becoming less and less what we were meant to be: human beings.

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