A strain of techno-pessimism, much of it invading the border of hysteria, is rampant in our culture. The Internet is Making us Stupid! Gadgets Ruin Relationships and Corrupt Emotions! Technology Is Taking Over English Departments with The false promise of the digital humanities!
At first glance, this kind of thing seems so very important and present-day, reflecting serious analysis about the impact of new tools on what we value about the past (or should value). Plus, it must also be said, some of these doomsters write compelling with sincerity and intelligence.
But there are two issues with such Cassandraic pronouncements, one conceptual and one historical. The conceptual issue boils down to basic human nature, which leaves us feeling a little uneasy about big changes in our lives. There’s a little nagging fear back in our heads even in the midst of what is generally thought of as progress, both personally and culturally. We may be swept along with innovation, but the more we see (and the more we age), the more nostalgic we tend to feel about tradition. Given how radically everyday life has changed in the West over the last several decades, heightened anxiety toward change leaves us particularly receptive to contrarian arguments about the benefits of technology. All those subjective pronouncements about how technology hurts us and erodes human values may just be the manifestation of our collective little nagging fears goosed by lots of change.
The historical perspective makes it clear that techno-pessimism is very old, most particularly in connection with communication itself. Plato, for example, decried writing because it diminished the power of learning through conversation. “If men learn [writing],” he wrote (!), “it will implant forgetfulness… calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”
Denis Baron, in A Better Pencil, notes how critics railed against the printing press when it came on the scene because inked words on paper would last far less time than handwriting on parchment. Peter the Venerable, according to Baron, contrasted the pen as carving wisdom into parchment with the press, which merely brushed marks on top of paper.
The typewriter, favorite of literary nostalgists, was initially viewed with much fear and loathing. While Samuel Clemens claimed he “was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature” in 1874, he bore no love for the device.
That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself. He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.
And so on until the recent past, where David Mamet declares his love for pad and pencil and abhors computers. “The idea of taking everything and cramming it into this little electronic box designed by some nineteen-year-old in Silicon Valley… I can’t imagine it.”
The bottom line here is that yes, we are a little worried about how quickly things are changing with information technology. But we can take some comfort in knowing that our ancestors had the same fears over the past 2500 years and things seem to have turned out reasonably well.