If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.
From Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”
A foundation for our answer can be found in a warning provided by the late communication theorist and New York University professor Neil Postman. Writing in the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.
He called such a culture a technopoly, and he didn’t mince words in warning against it. “Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,” he argued in his 1993 book on the topic. “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.”
Postman died in 2003, but if he were alive today he would likely express amazement about how quickly his fears from the 1990s came to fruition — a slide driven by the unforeseen and sudden rise of the Internet. Fortunately, Postman has an intellectual heir to continue this argument in the Internet Age: the hypercitational social critic Evgeny Morozov. In his 2013 book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov attempts to pull back the curtains on our technopolic obsession with “the Internet” (a term he purposefully places in scare quotes to emphasize its role as an ideology), saying: “It’s this propensity to view ‘the Internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology — perhaps today’s uber-ideology.”
In Morozov’s critique, we’ve made “the Internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government. To make your company more like “the Internet” is to be with the times, and to ignore these trends is to be the proverbial buggy-whip maker in an automotive age. We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twentysomethings who are often making things up as they go along. We’re instead quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of a (dare I say, brave) new world.
This Internet-centrism (to steal another Morozov term) is what technopoly looks like today. It’s important that we recognize this reality because it explains the question that opened this section. The New York Times maintains a social media desk and pressures its writers, like Alissa Rubin, toward distracting behavior, because in an Internet-centric technopoly such behavior is not up for discussion. The alternative, to not embrace all things Internet, is, as Postman would say, “invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
This invisibility explains the uproar, mentioned earlier, that arose when Jonathan Franzen dared suggest that novelists shouldn’t tweet. It riled people not because they’re well versed in book marketing and disagreed with Franzen’s conclusion, but because it surprised them that anyone serious would suggest the irrelevance of social media. In an Internet-centric technopoly such a statement is the equivalent of a flag burning — desecration, not debate.