How (Not) to Learn From the History of Technology

One of the first things I wrote on this blog nearly eight years ago, on an “About” page that has since been significantly abbreviated, was that we should aim at neither unbridled enthusiasm for technology nor thoughtless pessimism. Obviously no one is going to accuse me of unbridled enthusiasm for technology. While I may more justly be accused of a measure of pessimism, which in my view is not altogether unwarranted, I trust it does not come across as thoughtless.

So what I would like to know, from those who tend to be on the other side of the divide, is what constitutes, in their view, legitimate expressions of concern or worry that will not be dismissed with handwaving rhetorical gestures about how people have always worried about new technologies, etc., etc. (For starters, let us set aside the words “worry” and “concern” altogether. They too readily evoke the image of fainting couches and give off the odor of smelling salts.)

Consider Zachary Karabell’s piece for Wired, “Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat.” Karabell is responding to a series of recent articles exploring the fraught relationship between children and smartphones. Most notably, two groups of Apple investors publicly called on the company to take action to combat smartphone addiction among children.¹ Karabell cites a handful of other examples.

I have tried to read Karabell carefully and sympathetically, but I am not entirely clear what I am to take from his piece. Chiefly, it seems he simply felt the need to bring some calm to what he perceived to be a panic about technology. (Given the title of the article, however, I’m not sure it’s the critics who are panicking: smartphones aren’t being criticized, they are being demonized!)

The first move in this direction is to remind us that “Alarm at the corrosive effects of new technologies is not new” followed by obligatory references to Plato’s warning² about writing and the Catholic Church’s response to the printing press after which we get brief mention of similar warnings about a series of other technologies from the telegraph to Grand Theft Auto.

This is an all-too-familiar litany, and my question is always the same: What’s the point?

This question is not meant to be dismissive. It is an honest question. What is the point of the litany? It cannot be, of course, that I should therefore discount the present warnings because this would be a non sequitur as Karabell himself acknowledges. “Just because these themes have played out benignly time and again,” he writes, “does not, of course, mean that all will turn out fine this time.”

Indeed not. And this is so for a reason that is easy to grasp: each technology is different. This is especially the case when we consider the capacities and scale of more recent technologies when compared to earlier examples. Early in his piece, Karabell asked, “Is today’s concern about smartphones any different than other generations’ anxieties about new technology?” The answer seems straightforward to me: Yes, obviously so … because we’re talking about different technologies.

But let’s go a bit further. How sure are we that things “have played out benignly time and again”? How would we know? Is mere survival the bar? If not, what is? By what standard are we to conclude that the impact of these more recent technologies has been altogether benign? As Karabell acknowledges, these earlier complaints are often not wrong; we just don’t care anymore. Should we? Does this say more about our insensibilities than it does about their anxieties? Frankly, I’m increasingly convinced that we must be prepared to ask such questions and consider them with care and imagination.

After we’ve been reminded that we are not the first generation to express a measure of concern about new technologies, we are presented with a brief catalogue of the problems attributed to smartphones. Karabell seems both to believe that these are genuine concerns that should not be ignored and that we are not in a position to give them much weight. It’s an intriguing tension within this piece. It is as if the author understands that he is dealing with valid criticisms but cannot quite bring himself to take them too seriously.

Chiefly, it would seem that Karabell wants us to be open-minded about new technologies. The jury is still out in his view, and we don’t yet know with certainty what the long term effects will be. This paragraph is representative:

Some might say that until we know more, it’s prudent, especially with children, to err on the side of caution and concern. There certainly are risks. Maybe we’re rewiring our brains for the worse; maybe we’re creating a generation of detached drones. But there also may be benefits of the technology that we can’t (yet) measure.

It’s hard for me to read that and draw any firm conclusions as to what Karabell thinks we ought to do. Which is fine. I don’t always know what to do regarding the stuff I write about. But this piece ostensibly aims at relieving concerns and dismissing warnings; I’m not sure it succeeds, at least I don’t see that it give us any grounds to be relieved or to set warnings aside.

What’s more, if things do in fact play out benignly (assuming that everyone affected could agree on what that might mean), it would seem to me that the warnings and criticisms would be at least part of the reason why. Writers like Karabell assume that whatever early turbulence a new technology causes for a society, in time the society will right itself and cruise along smoothly. You would think, then, that such writers would enthusiastically welcome criticisms of new technologies in order to figure out how to steer through the turbulent period as quickly as possible. But this is rarely the case; they are merely annoyed.

It’s rarely the case because these technologies are often proxies for something much larger, something more like a worldview, an ideology, or a moral framework. Technology is code for Modernity or Progress or Reason, so to call a technology into question is to call these deeper values and commitments into question. Karabell’s closing paragraphs reveal as much.

“More than not,” he writes, “the innovations we call ‘technology’ have transformed and ameliorated the human conditions. There may have been some loss of community, connection to the land, and belonging; even here, we tend to forget that belonging almost meant exclusion for those who didn’t fit or didn’t believe what their neighbors did.”

It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which those sentences unwittingly betray a host of moral judgments the author seems unable to perceive as such. “[L]oss of community, connection to the land, and belonging”—they are casually listed off as if the author has only heard rumors of people that care about such things and can’t quite fathom such attachments.

“The smartphone is today’s emblem of whether one believes in progress or decline,” Karabell writes in his last paragraph.

Maybe that’s just too much of a burden to put on a technology, any technology. Maybe progress and decline shouldn’t be measured exclusively by technological innovation. Maybe it is not the critic who needs to be admonished to consider new technologies with an open mind.


¹A note about the term “addiction.” It’s not altogether clear that this is a useful way of characterizing how anyone relates to specific technologies. That there is a measure of compulsion seems clear enough, though. For my part, I prefer much older language of order and disorder. We can, I think, speak of disordered relationships without recourse to clinical terminology. The language of order and disorder is broader and implies a moral framework that extends beyond the healthy/unhealthy paradigm.

²This may come off as pedantic, but I’d rather not read any more passing mentions of Plato/Socrates on writing and memory unless they are accompanied by some evidence that the author has actually read and grappled with the Phaedrus.

7 thoughts on “How (Not) to Learn From the History of Technology

  1. That last note about Phaedrus is most instructive. People would come across the reductively-stated fact that “Plato criticized/warned against writing”, and that because we turned out ‘fine’ (again, whatever that means), then Plato must have been wrong. It overlooks all the nuances, the still-valid concerns that Plato put forward about the nature and effects of writing as a technology.

    (I confess I haven’t read Phaedrus, but I’ve read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, which I learned about through this blog.)

  2. A lot of excellent thoughts…when the technology in question filters communication, commandeers attention or reshapes our environment, we have to acknowledge that evaluating it is extremely difficult. Might as well ask the patient what he thinks about hypnosis as a method while he’s still under.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your order/disorder dichotomy. Is this an aversion a la Illich to medicalizing mental life? I could understand the merits to that.

    On the other hand, I’ve been encouraged recently that some attitudes toward addiction have finally started to shift in the right direction. A broader, more nuanced view of addiction centered in the body’s own reward system has the potential to tie together numerous patterns, patterns which have previously been partitioned off according to the substance or activity one is “addicted” to.

    I’d certainly agree that the word addiction gets tossed around too freely, but some of the best science and psychology in the world is being put to work right now to game our pleasure responses and it’s screwing up a lot of people’s lives. Some people seem to be more vulnerable than others, while yet others are only vulnerable in one area, but the sheer volume of people who are now claiming the title of “addict” in one domain or another should alarm us considerably.

    I just started Robert Lustig’s The Hacking of the American Mind. Maybe it will be what I hoped Damien Thompson’s The Fix would be – a deeper investigation of the links between modern consumerism and addiction.

  3. I favor a thoughtful pessimism. All that stuff about people being fretful about emerging technologies in the past and the argument that they were being merely alarmist…but Michael, this is different. You know it in your gut. But a thoughtful perspective is not really possible without some acquaintanceship with Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command. And then the epilogue, and especially, “Man In Equipoise.” I have reproduced this epilogue in its entirety at my blog, In the Balance. Giedion’s take on the Myth of Progress is a bit too favorable in my opinion; He’s still in thrall to Turgot’s dream. Yes, terms such as “addiction” as applied to smartphone use are a problem. Can we call it addiction like we call the effects of heroin addiction? Perhaps no. This new phenomenon is both more subtle and more pervasive. The key perhaps lies in such demonstrations of the power of the new technology as Natasha Dow Schull’s Addiction By Design. And, if you look at this book, and consider such expressions of dismay as George Soros’ recent (just yesterday wasn’t it?) qualms concerning the parallel between modern gaming house techniques for hooking the vulnerables in Las Vegas as outlined in Schull’s book and the practices of Facebook and the internet as a whole (a relationship that I explored just in these past few days at my site, for anyone interested), one might be tempted to agree that this is in fact a whole new ballgame. This is different, Michael. And looking at Giedions’ book allows one to trace the whole “anonymous history” of advanced technology from its humble beginnings in the 1760s to the Bomb and Auschwitz. Indispensable book. As Giedion relates in “Man In Equipoise”, at some point technological development had gone horribly wrong…and Mechanization Takes Command was written in 1948. Something is happening now that has never happened before.

  4. Good post. I agree that Giedon’s book is indispensable. The main take-away I got from Mechanization (20 some years ago) was the realization that the same principles that drive biological evolution similarly drive technological evolution. And that humans are not in logical control of the process. This is not to say that we have no ethical role to play in ~ how we organize our societies ~ , but just to recognize that there must be a much wider view than the technology good/bad debate. My feeling is that the problem is in us, not in the machines. After all, the technology of spears and arrows has not exactly been benign. It is we who turned the hunting tools on each other.

  5. Incisive, as always. I also note this commonplace in Karabell’s piece: “These new technologies, which are still in their infancy, …” Any evidence of a technology’s harmful effects can be dismissed by saying the technology is still in its “infancy,” the implication being that once the technology “grows up,” the ill effects will have miraculously vanished. Never mind that smartphones (and smartphone apps) represent the latest phase of technologies that have been around for decades; that smartphones and apps lie at the heart of some of the largest companies in the world, generating many billions in revenues and even profits; and that both the business models of these companies and the design models of the technologies are well-established and well-entrenched. Everything is still “in its infancy” (and, I suspect, will continue to be in its infancy forever).

    Did you include the “in their infancy” trope in your Borg Complex list? If not, I nominate it as an addition. Nick

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