How Technology is Making Us Stupid and Destroying Everything Good

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Yawn. Yawn. Yawn.

I’m so tired of these awful headlines.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

“Does Facebook Turn People Into Narcissists?”

“Is technology x making us negative human characteristic y?”

Must we play into the fear and self-doubt of those who feel lost in today’s primary medium of interaction? Must we rely on a false nostalgia to defend against the scary new and unknown? My god, were you guys even paying attention during Midnight in Paris???

But worry not, ye demagogues of Internet-phobia, you’re in good company.

Here’s Plato writing about writing in 400 B.C.:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.

And German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, on the printing press in 1680:

I even fear that after uselessly exhausting curiosity without obtaining from our investigations any considerable gain for our happiness, people may be disgusted with the sciences, and that a fatal despair may cause them to fall back into barbarism. To which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much. For in the end the disorder will become nearly insurmountable; the indefinite multitude of authors will shortly expose them all to the danger of general oblivion; the hope of glory animating many people at work in studies will suddenly cease: it will be perhaps as disgraceful to be an author as it was formerly honorable.

That’s right, the invention of the printing press, and the accompanying reduction in the cost of publishing, will result in the “barbarism” of the human race; science itself will suffer from the expansion of our ability to print and distribute knowledge.

Here’s James Gleick explaining early reactions to the telegraph in his book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood:

Some worried that the telegraph would be the death of newspapers, heretofore “the rapid and indispensable carrier of commercial, political and other intelligence,” as an American journalist put it:

“For this purpose the newspapers will become emphatically useless. Anticipated at every point by the lightning wings of the Telegraph, they can only deal in local “items” or abstract speculations. Their power to create sensations, even in election campaigns, will be greatly lessened—as the infallible Telegraph will contradict their falsehoods as fast as they can publish them.

…Intelligence, thus hastily gathered and transmitted, has also its drawbacks, and is not so trustworthy as the news which starts later and travels slower.”

It’s time to move beyond these headlines. Let’s meme them out of existence. Anyone writing one of these articles should be required to read Charles Bridenbaugh’s 1962 address in the American Historical Association’s journal:

There are, however, numerous inescapable ironies about the dilemmas created by inventions of the new age. With more and more scholars employing all the tools and techniques, using all the data processing machines, and also those frightening projected scanning devices, which we are told will read documents and books for us, there is still no machine for digesting the sources. No longer is there, or will there be, the time in which to ponder at length the meaning of the old reliables among the sources.

Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult.

The transistor radio has everywhere created a new urbe in rus, bringing the Huntley-Brinkley news and the Madison Avenue claptrap to the summit of Moosilauke and the High Sierras. Shades of John Muir and his lovely, lonely summers!

At best, these articles conclude with “well, we don’t really want to (or cannot) go back to the old ways of doing things, since we all agree that this technology is here to stay. But we’re going to continue missing what we used to have and being upset about what we have less of now, so that when our kids come home from College for vacation we can decry the decay of all that is proper and good in this world.”

I won’t argue that technological progress produces only positive change. Significant societal changes come with many externalities, and some are more positive than others; but I refuse to believe that an innovation that reduces the costs of creating, distributing, and consuming information is a net negative for society.

If nothing else, let’s please do away with these link-baity, AARP-approved, reefer madness headlines. (And let’s not pretend that people actually read these absurdly long articles. That’s the whole problem, right?) A thoughtful conversation can and should take place about the impact of technology on society, but that conversation should avoid at all costs any pandering to nostalgia and fear.

And now a dose of reality from Clay Shirky, who summarizes better than I ever could:

The change we are in the middle of isn’t minor and it isn’t optional, but nor are its contours set in stone. We are a long way from discovering and perfecting the net’s native forms, what Barthes called the ‘genius’ particular to a medium.

When society is changing, we want to know whether the change is good or bad, but that kind of judgment becomes meaningless with transformations this large.

And to those of you who will continue writing these headlines, stoking the fires of nostalgia, feeding the egos of participants in industries that are threatened by new opportunities for interaction, I invite you to heed Clay’s warning:

Our new freedoms are not without their problems; it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.

  • chrisdorr

    Jake, Nice piece. It is great that you point out that this resistance to technology is by no means a new phenomena. Helps to give it a larger context as you do.

    • jakelevine

      Thanks Chris!