About ten years ago, I acquired a deep suspicion of smartphones and social media. Riding a late-night L Train back to my Brooklyn apartment, I looked up from my book and observed about a dozen fellow riders, all in their twenties or early thirties, all hunched over, the blue light of their handhelds reflected in their eyes, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. They were indistinguishable.
To describe what was happening to them as “addiction” is not quite right. True, smartphones reshape the brain, and scrolling causes dopamine hits in kids that researchers claim are comparable to the effects of snorting cocaine. So “addiction” seems apt, and yet it misses a key point—that their reaction was designed. It is more proper to say that they were being “controlled.” What better word for Big Tech’s employment of some of the most talented neurologists, psychologists, and behaviorists in the world to induce narcotic-level attachment to their products?
Over the last several years, Big Tech has exerted ever more overt forms of social control. Tech firms nudge voters toward preferred candidates and poison the well for others; they recommend progressive talking points on their platforms and search engines despite lack of audience interest, while throttling opposing trends; they drop, or even seize the money of, conservative fundraising efforts on platforms like GoFundMe, while directly funding the campaigns of (sometimes violent) leftist groups; they shut down the accounts—that is, the voices—of users with benighted opinions, in coordination with federal bureaucrats, even to the point of deplatforming a sitting president; they surveil us constantly, cataloging our interests, relationships, politics, and religious beliefs; they auction off this information to the highest bidder—including, increasingly, state actors. This attempt to exert control over American public life is a logical extension of Big Tech’s hold on us individually.
When did we exit the information superhighway and become ensnared in the web? Neil Postman predicted it in the 1990s, when he warned about the emerging dominion of the winners in the silicon-chip revolution and the erosion of individual competence and civic life.
“The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population,” Postman writes in The End of Education (1995). He puts it more bluntly in his best book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992). Technological change, he says, creates “winners and losers.” When we are told that the rise of a particular technology is “inevitable,” and that progress inheres in a specific technological change, we should ask questions—above all, progress for whom? “To whom will the technology give greater power and freedom?” Postman asks. “And whose power and freedom will be reduced by it?” In the case of Big Tech, we know part of the answer. Those who surveil are the powerful, and the surveilled are the weak. “Digital natives”—a euphemism for teenagers watched perpetually by their devices—are the weakest of all.
Postman could occasionally sound a bit conspiratorial: “Those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology.” But he speaks here metaphorically. He means that one’s interests are shaped by the machines one uses and profits from. However roughly, technology defines action and thinking at the level of group instinct—much as class does. “Technology creates its own imperatives,” he says, “and, at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives.”
This may be what Adrian Vermeule had in mind when he coined “laptop class,” a term evoking the economic, political, social, and technological dynamics that have driven many proponents of the lockdowns. Isolation posed no threat to the laptop class, who were free to retreat into remote work. But it was a grave threat to those whose livelihoods and technologies required physical movement. This technological divergence manifested itself in the Canadian trucker standoff, where the digital lightness of the laptop (the truckers were de-banked and deplatformed) opposed the heavy, roaring, diesel-guzzling big rig. A techno-politics met a technological reaction. The struggle in Canada was, among other things, a machine war.
But Postman’s concerns go deeper. He saw in digital technology an epochal change in American life. Digital technology would increase ignorance, change morals, debase public discourse, erase childhood, cheapen party politics, overwhelm the family, threaten democracy, and cripple the church. Born into a Democratic household, Postman considered himself a “conservative,” though of an idiosyncratic kind. He was sympathetic to conservative concerns in the 1980s about the destruction of the university. Other thinkers concentrated on the divisive politics of multiculturalism, or on providing theoretical explanations for curricular incoherence. Many, following John Henry Newman, proposed theological or ontological explanations. Postman had a different view: The cause was largely technological.
It begins with the invention of “information” by Samuel Morse, the man behind the Morse code. By “information” Postman means “statements about the facts of the world.” Not facts themselves, or “knowledge,” and “certainly not . . . wisdom.” Morse code, Postman explained, created a new kind of message, “anonymous, decontextualized,” and stripped of “human personality itself, as an aspect of communication.”
What it gained in directness, “information” lost in detail, nuance, and above all relevance. What did it matter to the people of Topeka that there was a fire in New York, or a revolution in Italy? Or (today) that a child is transgender in Seattle? The principle birthed by Morse is that “the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action.”
This “context-free information” attacked the American mind. Trained to follow the arcs of sermons, books, the classics, and, above all, the Bible, the American mind was bombarded, and retrained, by this new mode of messaging. Our educational system had been arranged to prepare a literate citizenry. That old idea was overwhelmed by a new one that made the mind responsive to ephemera. Postman laments: “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, and purpose.” This describes our universities and public discourse equally. Flooded by information, our common life has been swept away.
To claims that TV would boost literacy, in Amusing Ourselves to Death(1985) Postman practically LOLed. By the time of Technopoly (1992), with the rise of the internet, which let loose a torrent of “information” into our homes, he despaired: “A family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all.” Harsh words. But thirty years later, the family has realized their truth, as individuals retreat to the isolation of their screens. Schools and churches were once critical to information control, and they have likewise been overrun, Postman says. He feared that nothing would emerge to impart order to the surging flood of information.
He was wrong. Something has, indeed, emerged. For it was soon discovered that one piece of information was of such value that the entire internet should be restructured to capture it. That information: you. Postman did not foresee that the internet, through the “search” function, would be turned back on us as a “one-way mirror” (to quote Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism), through which we are constantly watched. The search is presented to us as a tool for looking outward, but in fact it is a biopsy. It “extracts” our interests, habits, convictions, hopes, friends, purchases, politics, exact location, and much more. Postman’s information crisis was solved by turning the astounding availability of information about very nearly everything into an occasion to gain information about a very specific thing: us. The vast ocean of digital information, which requires tools to navigate, became the pathway to control.
This system of control started by steering us to products. But now it does far more. Caution against the drums of war? You’ll be mobbed. Break a story damaging to candidate Biden? Deplatformed. Question mask efficacy? Fact-checked. Support Trump? De-banked. Challenge Fauci? Discredited for disinformation.
The elaborations will continue. With ever more objects being integrated into the system—bathrooms, doorways, menus, who knows what next—and with grotesque plans afoot to patch in even human beings themselves (see Facebook’s Metaverse), the possibilities for control are endless.
Postman sought to resist this development. “The aim of a genuine conservative in a technological age,” he writes in Conscientious Objections (1988), “is to control the fury of technology, to make it behave itself, to insist that it accommodate itself to the will and temperament of a people.” We must tame Big Tech. But we must also keep our eyes on the technologies of the future. For either they will be ours to govern, or we will be theirs. In the spirit of Postman, we must learn to ask, progress for whom?
Michael Toscano writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.