Technopoly, by Neil Postman, 1992.

A fun book written with dry wit. Readers of Eric Voegelin will be immediately suspicious, but Postman divides the history of a society into three phases: (1) tool-using, (2) technocratic, where the tools begin to run society but the older standards and restrictions are still in force, and (3) technopoly, where technical considerations supersede and obliterate all others.

Just as America was the leading technocratic society of the 19th century, it has become the first technopoly in the 20th. Progress, efficiency and technique are the only recognized metaphysical foundations of our culture and they are unquestionable.

Although he doesn't spend much time on politics, his analysis is suggestive of the problem of Liberalism: how the more or less workable enlightenment philosophy of the 1800s became the inhuman rad-left egalitarianism of the late 20th century. Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent covers this in greater detail.

He punctures a sentiment I have often expressed: that a technology is neither good nor bad in itself, but that human decisions contribute the ethical dimension. He says that a technology will be employed for all possible uses. It is not possible to have atomic power plants without the A-bomb as well.

Like John Lukacs, he seems pessimistic about the future of our 500-year-old Age of the Book. Text will not be able to compete with sensory richness of graphic media. Today's good "bookish" student will probably be the emotionally cold "slow learner" of 2050. (But consider: there was civilization before the printing press. If we know how to grow wise men we ought to do so and listen to them whether they are literate or not. Do we know how to grow wise men?)

Postman offers many intriguing insights: the revolutionary nature of the telescope, the origins of "management", the importance of the Scopes trial when the State came down firmly for one side in a debate over the sources of meaning, the early 20th century court case when an industry was ordered to operate more efficiently in order to maintain its profits. He is blistering in his amused contempt for scientism and the jumped-up pretentions of the social sciences. He criticizes all ranking, scoring and grading of the human realm, including IQ tests. He has a long section on how medicine has come to mean nothing more than the application of all known therapeutic techniques.

He proposes that in the 19th century society explained itself through the novel; in the 20th this function has been assumed by the pseudo-scientific social philosopher/advocate: Freud, Kinsey, Mead, Skinner, et al. Although he doesn't address economic science specifically, the same analysis applies: most popular economics is not science at all, but a form of visionary advocacy.

Technopoly and bureaucracy grow in tandem and the computer is their perfect tool, evolving into a master. It relieves the bureaucrat of all responsibility. I would note that this hasn't happened yet because there are still people who know how the machines work and need not accept excuses. However, future progress in artificial intelligence may lie in an inexplicable, almost organic development from simpler structures to the more complex, much like neural tissues in the brain. The computer will say "Do X, it is the most efficient way" and no one will be able to question it.

He diffidently offers some prescriptions, very mild and probably pointless in the large, although they may contribute to the eccentricity of his readers: be suspecious of polling, arguments from efficiency, and the magical power of numbers. Take seriously religion, family loyalty and honor, revere the aged, etc. Mostly he recommends a curriculum reform which seems pointless to me.