Technology, our Humanity, and the Fate of Public Administration

Back in my graduate school days I designed a course focused on technology and its impacts on the urban environment and the general social fabric of society. Students read some pretty heavy material, including Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman. If you are a good urbanist you already know Lewis Mumford, but you may be less familiar with Postman’s work. I am simplifying his argument, but Postman worried that the balance of technology was shifting from a place where humans used technology to better serve human needs, to a place where humans lived to serve the needs of technology. He called this state technopoly, which he defined as such:

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.

I pondered Postman’s work after I watched Jake Tapper’s Stephen Miller interview Sunday morning. My first instinct was to see how Twitter would react. My actual thought process was, “What will Twitter think of this?” Breaking this down, I pretty much realized Postman’s worst vision. One, I ceded my own thoughts for those of others. Rather than think about what I just watched and form an opinion based on my own humanity, I went looking for the instant reaction, which inevitably clouded my judgment. Two, I humanized a computer program. I did not think about a specific person on Twitter, but Twitter itself. Three, I used technology to find my satisfaction, I did not engage the humans around me, or my own brain, but rather an interface where ideas from total strangers dominate.

So my thought today is what heck is wrong with me?!! Or more to the point, is technology poisoning our social fabric and changing not only how we discourse, but who we are? Here are two more relevant paragraphs from Postman:

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures

One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose.

Reading that makes me shiver, as there is a whole lot of evidence that society has reached a point where “defenses against information glut have broken down.” I have a paper under review right now (fingers crossed) that argues one must understand the importance of perceptions if they are to truly understand the state of modern governance. There is strong evidence (in my informed opinion) to support my hypothesis, and accordingly I think it is essential that the field of public administration places renewed focus on the concept of public acceptance and Herbert Simon’s notion of decision-premises.

But what if our decision-premises are so clouded by inhumane technological forces that our zones of acceptance are determined not by ideas and experience, or really our very humanity, but rather platforms like Twitter and Facebook? How can public administrators and policymakers govern in an environment where public acceptance is increasingly divorced from humanity?

Per usual, I have no good answers to these questions, but it is making me think about new paradigms for understanding governance and public administration. It is also making me think about my own use of social media platforms and how it is impacting by critical thinking patterns. Of course the irony is that I am tweeting this out, but I do love vagueness and contradictions. But for now, I think it is time to reread Postman, and perhaps dig a littler deeper into the relationship between Postman’s thinking and public administration theory.

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