Thinking and Its Rhetorical Enemies

In one short post, Alan Jacobs targeted several Borg Complex symptoms. The post was triggered by his frustration with an xkcd comic which simply strung together a series of concerns about technological developments expressed in the late 19th and early 20th century. The implicit message was abundantly clear: “Wasn’t that silly and misguided? Of course it was. Now stop your complaining about technology today.”

Jacobs raised four salient points in response:

1. “Why do we just assume that their concerns were senseless?”

2. While we may endorse the trade-offs new technologies entail, “it would be ridiculous to say that no trade has been made.”

3. “Moreover, even if people were wrong to fear certain technologies in the past, that says absolutely nothing about whether people who fear certain other technologies today are right or wrong.”

4. This sort of thing presents “an easy excuse not to think about things that need to be thought about.”

Exactly right on all counts.

In partial response to Jacobs’ question, I’d suggest that when living memory of a lost state of affairs also perishes, so to does the existential force of the loss and its plausibility. What we know is that life went on – here we are after all – and that seems to be the only bright line of consequence. All that is established by this, of course, is that we eventually acclimated to the new state of affairs. That we eventually get used to a state of affairs tells us nothing about its quality or desirability, nor that of the state of affairs that was displaced. To assume that it does is a future-tense extension of the naturalistic fallacy: simply because something comes to be the case, it does not follow that it ought to be the case.

The second point above recalls Neil Postman’s discussion of (yes, you guessed it) Phaedrus, Plato’s famous dialog in which Socrates tells the story of Thamus and Theuth. The god Theuth presents Thamus, king of Egypt, with a number of inventions including writing. Theuth is understandably excited about his creations, but Thamus is less sanguine. He warns that writing, among other things, will destroy memory. Learning to cite this story and dismiss it scornfully must be the first thing they teach you in tech-punditry school. But, as Jacobs points out, Thamus was not wrong. Here is Postman’s take:

“[Thamus’ error] is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thamus’ error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable.”

“Every technology,” Postman goes on to say, “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” Those who see only blessing Postman labels “zealous Zeuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.” Postman grants, of course, that there are also one-eyed prophets who speak only of the burdens of technology. It is best then to open both eyes.

Jacobs’ third point reminds us that the one-eyed prophets of technological blessing, those who dismiss the silly fears of previous generations, take Chicken Little as their normative story: the sky never, ever falls. As I’ve written before, the tale of the boy who cried wolf serves better. Even if earlier alarms proved false, it does not follow that the wolf never comes.

Finally, it is the fourth point that bears reiterating most emphatically. We need to think more, not less. It is that simple. There are many problems with Borg Complex rhetoric; that it undermines thinking and judgement may be the most disturbing and damaging.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking and Its Rhetorical Enemies

  1. 2,000 years ago the fastest way to get around was a horse or a boat. 1,000 years ago the fastest way to get around was a horse or a boat. 500 years ago the fastest way to get around was a horse or a boat. 200 years ago the fastest way to get around was a horse or a boat. Today we are walking on the Moon and sending remote-controlled robots to Mars.

    These ridiculously rapid developments in communication and transportation all started just before the texts xkcd is quoting were written. The stuff we’re dealing with today was set in motion by the telegraph, steam engine, etc. Which is to say, the best he’s demonstrated is that people saw the problems right when they were starting!

    Call me when he’s got similar letters that are 1500 years old.

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