2400 years of technology panics

I remember a stand-up comic (I think it was Chris Rock) describing his grandmother's complaints about modern life. She felt that young men were less polite than they used to be, no longer smiling or opening doors. The comic explained the reason for this – the young men were no longer trying to sleep with her. While crude, the joke illustrates the danger of using personal experience to make judgements about the world as a whole.

Another example – the queen was once asked about her travels. What was the main impression she had of the world? The queen is supposed to have replied that it smells of fresh paint. The queen's personal experience is very different to yours or mine.

I think that a similar lack of perspective occurs when people talk about new technology. Recently there have been a number of books about the dangers of social media, such as Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, Jaron Lannier's You are not a gadget and Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. Similar books have been written about texting, television, computer games and the Internet in general. This sort of doomsaying seems to be an effective way of selling books.

Debates about the dangers of new technology go back to at least as early as Plato's time and arguably haven't changed much. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the risks of writing. While writing works as an aid to memory, Socrates claims that writing is a remedy for reminding, not remembering… with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. People can read about a subject without understanding it whereas a human teacher can make sure someone truly understands – writings are silent; they cannot speak, answer questions, or come to their own defense. According to Socrates, the technology of writing would undermine civilised society.

Similar issues have been raised with other new technologies – children using text speak will be less competent with language; using Google to research facts results in shallower understanding. I believe there was even debate about the problems with listening to music alone on a gramophone. New technologies come, they're absorbed, and the world continues.

I think that part of the problem is a lack of historical perspective about technology, something discussed in David Berreby's essay The Myth of 'Peak Attention'. We tend to think of our position in history as special, that the challenges we face are greater than any in the past, rather than the latest in a continuing series. One good example is the claim that the amount of information in the world is constantly rising. This results in discussions of our society as uniquely stressful and the coining of buzzwords like 'information diets' and 'peak attention'. The biological bandwidth of the human mind has not altered in the last few decades, so we have not suddenly increased the amount we can absorb. So, in what way is modern information different?

In his essay, David Berreby refers to the Copernican Principle. In short, it suggests not assuming that you're in a special place unless you have a very good reason: It may be that we live in an era unlike any other in its demands on the human mind. But it's not probable. And in fact there have been other eras in which people thought demands on attention were outstripping human capacities.

When people talk about increasing amounts of information they need a clear definition of 'information'. Are we, perhaps, ignoring other types of information that would have taken for granted in the past, so much that they are rarely explicitly referred to? It's too easy to assume that people in the past were much simpler because they didn't have the same technologies as us. Regular people three hundred years ago probably had as rich and meaningful an inner life as we did, even without blogs, Twitter and mobile phones.

When we predict the effect of a new technology, the main comparison point we have is to our own experiences. As Chris Rock points out, we need to be careful that we are not comparing our early life to the present and using that to draw conclusions about the wider world. Another example: as people grow older they become more physically vulnerable. Youths on the street seem more threatening, leading to a feeling that society is more dangerous than it used to be, despite a trend of falling crime rates.

Any useful new technology will be disruptive. Technologies such as cities, farming, plumbing and supermarket supply chains have all produced changes to social frameworks and such change is often threatening. Such disruptive change is a common experience throughout human history – and it always feels as if each new change is more significant than any other.

When considering the threats and challenges of a new technology, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Any new technology is one in a long line. Is it any more of a threat than other changes that have been harmlessly absorbed? Will your argument date quickly and seem ridiculous when people go back to it in fifteen years time? (Much of the critical theory about the video revolution in the 80's and 90's was rendered obsolete and ridiculous by the widespread adoption of the Internet.)

To quote the philosopher Jacques Derrida what is changing the face of everything on the face of the world in this way is but a little fraction of a fraction of a second in a history which has been transforming the relationship of the living organism to itself and its environment… what we are living through and talking about… occupies the time and place of a miniscule comma in an infinite text. (Paper Machine, p18)

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2 thoughts on “2400 years of technology panics”

  1. >
    This interests me because I have just read a book called ‘The Praise Singer’ by Mary Renault. According to her writing down their narratives was anathema to bards because while it preserved them, it also fixed them (as in jam preserves) so they could no longer evolve to suit the times. Idries Shah also says that writing has misled many people about what Sufism is because a true teacher teaches based on what is appropriate in the moment to a particular person and there is no dogma of belief in Sufism, and he is scathing about Sufis who teach dervish dancing which he says were designed for a particular 13th century nomadic tribe in the desert and has no efficacy at all. The same of course is true in storytelling. We now tell stories which were ‘preserved’ and would, if not written down, perhaps have evolved to suit our time and situation. Not of course that I wish writing hadn’t been invented (!) but it may be true that when recorded or written material becomes more important that live performance and people no longer make music or tell but just listen, something is lost. Glad I found your blog again. Since I changed to a Mac I haven’t been able to find blogs I follow on the menu bar.

  2. Thank you very much for that comment, Umi – I’ve been reading some interesting things about pre-literate cultures,and your references fit in well with that. I’m not sure if it will fit in with the PhD (or how – yet!) but there are some fascinating effects of writing.
    I have also been wondering how important memory techniques were to certain types of poetry. Knowing that poems could be written down must have changed the way people thought of the art form.

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