Early in the life of this blog, I linked to a very useful post by Adam Thierer at Technology Liberation Front mapping out a spectrum of attitudes to the Internet ranging from optimism to pessimism with a pragmatic middle in between. The post helpfully positioned a wide variety of contemporary writers and summarized their positions on the social consequences of the Internet. It remains a great starting point for anyone wanting to get their bearings on the public debate over the Internet and its consequences.
Adam subsequently included a link to my post on technology Sabbaths in his list of resources for further reading and he has since then, and on more than one occasion, been generous enough to kindly mention this blog via Twitter. He’s now writing regularly at Forbes and offers excellent commentary on the legal and regulatory issues related to Internet policy.
On the aforementioned spectrum, I believe that Adam positioned himself on the optimistic side of the pragmatic middle. I’ve generally been content to occupy the more pessimistic side. Precisely because of this propensity, I make a point of reading folks like Adam for balance and perspective. I was not surprised then to read Adam’s recent upbeat article, “10 Things Our Kids Will Never Worry About Thanks to the Information Revolution.”
I trust he won’t mind if I offer a view from just the other side of the pragmatic middle. This will work best if you’ve read his post; so click through, give it a read, and then come back to consider my take below.
So here are my more contrarian/pessimistic assessments. The bold faced numbered items are Adam’s list of things kids will never worry about thanks to digital technology. My thoughts are below each.
1. Taking a typing class.
I took a typing class in ninth grade and as much as I disliked it at the time, I’m extremely grateful for it now. It made college and grad school much less arduous, and has served me well given the countless professional uses of typing (on a computer, of course). Kids may figure out a rough and ready method of typing on their own, but in my experience, this is not nearly as efficient as mastering traditional typing skills. Unless the PC vanishes, expert typing skills will remain an advantage.
2. Paying bills by writing countless checks.
I too write very few checks and have been using online bill pay for years now. But here’s what’s lost: the sense of money as a limited resource that derives from both the use of cash on hand and the arithmetical practice of balancing a check book.
3. Buying an expensive set of encyclopedias
I remember rather fondly when the encyclopedia set arrived at my house; over the years I spent quite some time with it. Yes, I was that kid. Never mind that, this is a point that easily segues into the larger debate about digital media and print. Too much to reduce to a brief note; suffice it to say that digital texts have not exactly been linked to a renaissance of secondary education. That price tag for the set was a bit stiff though, probably why I got a World Book set instead of the gold standard Britannica.
4. Using a pay phone or racking up a big “long distance” bill
No argument on the big bill, but consider that what has been lost here is the salubrious social instinct that conceived of the enclosed phone booth in the first place.
5. Having to pay someone else to develop photographs
Hard to argue against having to pay less, but consider the psychic consequences of the digital camera. We’re obsessive self-documenters now and have never met a scene that wasn’t a picture waiting to happen. And when was the last time you actually printed out digital photos anyway. Interestingly, vintage photographic equipment is making a comeback in some circles.
6. Driving to the store to rent a movie
Gone with it are the little rites of passage that children enjoy like being allowed to walk or ride the bike to the video store for the first time and the subsequent little adventures that such journeys could bring. Of course, it’s not just about the video store. But the trajectory here suggests that we’ll not need to leave our house for much. I think it was Jane Jacobs who noted the necessary socializing influence of the countless personal and face-to-face micro-encounters attending life in the city. Suburbs diminished their number; the convenience of the Internet has reduced them even further.
7. Buying / storing music, movies, or games on physical media
These same objects also functioned as depositories of memories … when they have their own unique, tangible form. Lost also is the art of giving as a gift the perfect album or film that fits your friend and their circumstances just right. No need, iTunes gift card will do.
8. Having to endlessly search to find unique content
Adam tells us exactly what is lost: “I will never forget the day in the early 1980s when, after a long search, I finally found a rare Led Zeppelin B-Side (“Hey Hey What Can I Do”) on a “45” in a dusty bin at a small record store. It was like winning the lottery!”
9. Sending letters
Guess I’m a nostalgic old-timer. But seriously, tell me who wouldn’t get a thrill from receiving a letter from a friend. Lost is the expectation and the joy of waiting for and receiving a letter. Lost too is the relationship to time entailed by the practice of letter writing and the patience it cultivated.
10. Being without the Internet & instant, ubiquitous connectivity
Lost is solitude, introspection, uninterrupted time with others. But in fairness this does bring that unique blend of anxiety and obsessiveness that the expectation of being able to instantly communicate engenders when for whatever reason it is not immediately successful.
Admittedly, this is hardly intended to be a rigorous sociological analysis of digital culture. The “Never” in the title is hyperbolic, of course. Many of these losses are not total and they are balanced by certain gains. But as I wrote my more pessimistic rejoinders, I did notice a pattern: the tendency to collapse the distance between desire and its fulfillment. We do this either by reducing the distance in time or else the distance in effort. Make something effortless and instant and you simultaneously make it ephemeral and trivial. The consequence is the diminishment of the satisfaction and joy that attends the fulfillment.
If this is true and this pattern holds, then what our kids may never know, or at least know less of thanks to the information revolution is abiding and memorable joy and the satisfactions that attend delayed gratification and effort expended toward a desired end.
Be sure to read Adam’s response, “Information Revolutions and Cultural/Economic Tradeoffs”