Data, Data Everywhere; Is There a Drop of Wisdom in its Midst? — Some Thoughts prompted by Neil Postman
I do not have time (or at least do not take time) to re-read books. I always have my next assignment, and the clock and calendar are so unforgiving. But occasionally I think back to a book that I feel I need to rediscover. My current such volume is Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman. I first discovered Postman more than three decades ago in his book Teaching as A Subversive Activity. He nailed the coming entertainment age with his classic and very important book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. These, and really all of his volumes, are important. But I think Technopoly has special insight for our current era.
Here’s the quote that got my attention this weekend: ”the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data…” Read that again: “to a man with a computer, everything looks like data.”
His thesis in this book is pretty simple to grasp, but challenging to ponder: technology changes everything. And, at the moment, as numbers crunchers and data finders keep looking for the formulas for business success — you know, those absolute formulas that say “Do this, and you will inevitably succeed. Don’t implement this, and you will inevitably fail.” We all seem to be enamored with data. The Moneyball baseball experts, the pollsters in politics, the numbers crunchers in business circles – they all have found the secret of success. Or, believe that they will find it soon with just the right formula to use to crunch the numbers, to find the data. We are increasingly convinced that with computers, able to succeed so well at computing, business nirvana is right around the corner — the golden age when all unnecessary and unproductive work is clearly identified and jettisoned. Only productive, profitable work will be tackled. No more wasted, unproductive hours. Everything we try, everything we do, will work just right! This is the ultimate promise of technology – of the discovery and proper use of data.
It is true that much technology has delivered on its promise. But – have we given too much honor to data itself? Postman’s volume is a warning about technology. We do not know what it will take away. We do not know enough of its dark side. His stories are insightful – like the Benedictine Monks in the 12th/13th century who invented the modern clock so that they could pray the proper number of times per day, and how that very discovery, the clock, ultimately has taken away so much of our time from reflection and prayer.
Technopoly is the arrival of something almost unnameable. Here’s how he puts it: ”For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is — in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly.”
So, as we write of business books with business success ideas and business failure warnings on this blog, remember – we could be wrong. The books could be wrong. The promise of technology may not always come to fruition.
Postman accepted the lable of being a cultural critic, and such critics are frequently satisfied with posing a problem and leaving it up to others to finding the solution(s). His recommendation: that we all become “resistance fighters” against the encroachment and spiritual emptiness of technopoly. How do we do that? – maybe it’s time to order the book. (It’s in the last chapter).
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