In preparation for those Vancouver lectures I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m working my way through a raft of books on technology and society. Which means you’re going to hear about them in this blog. A lot.

I went back this past week to reread Neil Postman’s 1992 Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology; it’s one of the core reflections on this topic, and even if you disagree with Postman you can’t ignore him. (I’ve got to go back and reread Jacques Ellul as well.)

I first read this book years ago. Maybe fifteen years. Starting into it again, I was brought up short by this section, which I don’t remember from my first reading.

…Technophiles….gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and are to be appraoched cautiously. On the other hand, some…such as I (or so I am accused), are inclined to speak only of burdens…and are silent about the opportunities that new technologies make possible. The Technophiles must speak for themselves, and do so all over the place. My defense is that a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitude…For it is inescapable that every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not. A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed. Here, for examples, is Freud on the matter, from his doleful Civilization and Its Discontents:

One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed?? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of a civilized man?

Freud knew full well that technical and scientific advances are not to be taken lightly, which is why he begins this passage by acknowledging them.

So far so good. But let us continue:

But [Freud] ends [the passage] by reminding us of what they have undone:

If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage?

At this point I had a series of related reactions which I scribbled in the margin of the book. They went something like this:

Hold the phone. Freud just said: If one technology reduces infant mortality at the same time that another technology lowers the birth rate, the technologies cancel each other out because we end up with the same number of children at the end of the day.

In other words, Freud dismisses nine months of pregnancy, labor, and delivery as unimportant. And even more appalling: he does not give any weight at all to the emotional anguish of giving birth to a child, loving it, and watching it die.

I cannot imagine a woman writing this. (“If you end up with four children at the end, having a dozen babies and watching eight die is the same as having four pregnancies.”)

Even more startling to me is Postman’s quoting it as a perfect example of understanding both the benefits and drawbacks of technology. Did he not hear Freud’s voice, pointing out that it’s better to have an unfettered sex life and lots of children, even if some of them die, than to “create difficulties” around sex and lower the birth rate? (Okay, to be fair to Freud, he did say “in marriage.” But still.)

Would a woman, writing about technology and American civilization, quote Freud in this way? Surely not.

And now that I look at the twelve highly-recommended books about technology and American society sitting on my to-read shelf, another question occurs to me. Why are they all by men?

(By the way: recommendations for titles on this topic, written by women, would be much appreciated.)

Showing 8 comments
  • Sligo

    As I read it, the emotional weight of child-bearing and rearing is addressed in the first quote, which asks the question in the first place. And the difference between the possible positions Freud posits is exactly what Postman is trying to emphasize. Is it really what Freud is trying to emphasize? I wouldn’t take Postman’s word for it. I imagine there’s something a bit more nuanced going on.

  • Ally

    No, I ran into a few when doing some research on Millennials, but I think they were all written by men… I would be curious to know what is new out there on the topic – so much of what I found was so old, older than I expected on the topic, but I was working with a smaller library collection and trying to limit ILL to only the most necessary (in this case – the books on the Millennial generation)

  • Jenny

    My resource for information of this type usually comes from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. As he reads more in year than I will in a lifetime. I listed women that I have heard him interview on this topic and others that he listed as well.

    Maggie Jackson; Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2008)

    Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s essay, “A Stranger’s Dream: The Virtual Self and the Socialization Crisis,” Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, July 2006).

    Christine Rosen – Articles in Atlantis and
    check out this link at Mars Hill

    Jane Metcalfe-President of Wired magazine (US, UK and Japanese editions), Wired TV, Wired Books, and the Wired Digital suite of websites.

  • Yvette

    Take a look at Marva Dawn (Lutheran Theologian) who also quotes Postman and Ellul. By memory her books on Sabbath and children but possibly more, I have not read all of her work.

  • Mike

    I would second the recommendation of Christine Rosen and also add the following Sherry Turkle, Donna Haraway, and especially N. Katherine Hayles.

  • Sahamamama

    I didn’t take Freud that way. It seemed to me that he was asking questions about technology’s power to connect and disconnect us as human beings. To me, it sounded more like, “We see the benefit of ___________ (insert appreciated technology). BUT, if it had not been for _______________ (insert “antecedent” technology), we would not have needed _________________ (insert original technology). I don’t think all three “arguments” follow the same pattern, though.

    #1. We see the benefits of the telephone — I can call my child; thus, we are not disconnected.
    BUT if it had not been for the railway, which disconnected me from my child, we would not have needed the telephone in order to maintain our connection.

    #2. We see the benefits of the under-ocean cable — I can contact my friend; thus, we are not disconnected.
    BUT if it had not been for the ocean-going vessel, which disconnected me from my friend, we would not have needed the cable in order to maintain our connection.

    #3. We see the benefits of (a) better medical care of newborns; (b) better medical care of laboring/delivered mothers; and (c) better medical care of “civilized man” (!) — I can live longer and my loved ones live longer; thus, we are not disconnected by death.
    BUT if it had not been for ____________ ….

    And here, I think, Freud’s comparison falls short. He does not insert into this blank space what he considers to be an antecedent, causal technology, as he did in the previous examples — that is, the railway made the telephone necessary (one could differ, BTW), or the ship made the cable necessary (again, this is debatable).

    Instead, at the end of Argument #3 Freud inserts the supposed OUTCOME of, or RESPONSE to, a reduced mortality rate — producing fewer infants to begin with. Here he is saying, “If it had not been for REDUCED INFANT MORTALITY (antecedent), we would not be begetting fewer children (outcome) and imposing restrictions on our marital relations.” His other two arguments are opposite to this.

    I think it is worth asking, “What DID precede these technologies?” In Argument #1, one might say that people spreading out over vast distances via the railways resulted in the “need” for the telephone. In Argument #2, one might say that people spreading out across oceans via ships resulted in the “need” for the cable. In Argument #3, Freud describes what he feels is the OUTCOME of a reduced infant mortality rate, when he should be asking, as he did in his other examples: What PRECEDES it? What creates a “need” for it?

    What indeed! Centuries, eons of grief. Oceans of tears. Motherless babes. Childless mothers.

    Argument #3, consistently argued, would say: BUT, if it had not been for this great weight of grief, we would not have needed the reduction in mortality.

    Sigh. I am done.

  • David Winyard, Sr.

    Try reading “More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave,” by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

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