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After Technopoly 

Alan Jacobs

What Neil Postman called “technopoly” may be described as the universal and virtually inescapable rule of our everyday lives by those who make and deploy technology, especially, in this moment, the instruments of digital communication. It is difficult for us to grasp what it’s like to live under technopoly, or how to endure or escape or resist the regime. These questions may best be approached by drawing on a handful of concepts meant to describe a slightly earlier stage of our common culture.

First, following on my earlier essay in these pages, “Wokeness and Myth on Campus” (Summer/Fall 2017), I want to turn again to a distinction by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski between the “technological core” of culture and the “mythical core” — a distinction he believed is essential to understanding many cultural developments.

“Technology” for Kołakowski is something broader than we usually mean by it. It describes a stance toward the world in which we view things around us as objects to be manipulated, or as instruments for manipulating our environment and ourselves. This is not necessarily meant in a negative sense; some things ought to be instruments — the spoon I use to stir my soup — and some things need to be manipulated — the soup in need of stirring. Besides tools, the technological core of culture includes also the sciences and most philosophy, as those too are governed by instrumental, analytical forms of reasoning by which we seek some measure of control.

By contrast, the mythical core of culture is that aspect of experience that is not subject to manipulation, because it is prior to our instrumental reasoning about our environment. Throughout human civilization, says Kołakowski, people have participated in myth — they may call it “illumination” or “awakening” or something else — as a way of connecting with “nonempirical unconditioned reality.” It is something we enter into with our full being, and all attempts to describe the experience in terms of desire, will, understanding, or literal meaning are ways of trying to force the mythological core into the technological core by analyzing and rationalizing myth and pressing it into a logical order. This is why the two cores are always in conflict, and it helps to explain why rational argument is often a fruitless response to people acting from the mythical core.

Let’s add to this distinction a different but closely related one by the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. In his 1948 essay “The Tower of Babel” (collected in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays), Oakeshott outlines two general forms of the moral life. In one, he says, “The moral life is a habit of affection and behaviour,” of “conduct.” He then asks the question, “From what sort of education will this first form of the moral life spring?” He answers that “we acquire habits of conduct in the same way as we acquire our native language” — that is, “not by constructing a way of living upon rules or precepts and learned by heart and subsequently practiced, but by living with people who habitually behave in a certain manner.” To this form of moral life he contrasts another, in which “activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion.”

This is a form of the moral life in which a special value is attributed to self-consciousness, individual or social; not only is the rule or the ideal the product of reflective thought, but the application of the rule or the ideal to the situation is also a reflective activity.

Drawing on both Oakeshott and Kołakowski, I may summarize the argument of this essay thus: Technopoly is a system that arises within a society that views moral life as an application of rules but that produces people who practice moral life by habits of affection, not by rules. (Think of Silicon Valley social engineers who have created and capitalized upon Twitter outrage mobs.) Put another way, technopoly arises from the technological core of society but produces people who are driven and formed by the mythical core.

Technopoly’s development of people who function mythically is, for now, in the interest of technopoly. But it also brings into view how myth may be shaping our common future after technopoly....

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Alan Jacobs, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a distinguished professor of the humanities in the honors program at Baylor University. He is the author, most recently, of The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Alan Jacobs, "After Technopoly," The New Atlantis, Number 58, Spring 2019, pp. 3-14.