After Technopoly

Alan Jacobs at the New Atlantis: “Technocratic solutionism is dying. To replace it, we must learn again the creation and reception of myth….
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….(More)”.