Next Generation Hand-Wringing

Lots of people seem really wrong-headed about technology. In short, Facebook and iPods really really really aren’t ruining society or creating people who can’t communicate. So I guess it’s obvious where I stand.

There’s a new book out, A Better Pencil, which explains that the shrill sky-is-falling noises about communications technology are as old as written history.

[It’s probably older, but of course we don’t know for sure, since the technology wasn’t in place to record it. Maybe the “yell-really-loud” crowd feared that drums would ruin everything. And don’t even get me started about smoke signals.]

In an interview with Salon, the author notes that Plato complained about the technology of writing. Plato worried that having everything written down could degrade people’s memory. (Which maybe it did, but wasn’t it worth it?) Here’s a quote from the interview. After Plato, we have…

“Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won’t have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there’s no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant — it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page.”

And now there’s Facebook, which is another way to extend your communication. And right on queue come the cries of societal disintegration.

2 Responses to “Next Generation Hand-Wringing”

  1. September 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm #

    The one point of contention I have with the Plato point (and it’s hard to disagree with a book I haven’t read, granted) is that oral transmission did have some real benefits over written transmission in many ways, not the least of which is the lack of transcription errors. Any scholar of ancient texts will tell you that. Resistance to new technologies is not all hysterics.

  2. September 24, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Dave, I would guess that there were lots of errors in the oral tradition as well. There are lots of different versions of orally transmitted folk tales, for example.

    I think that there are some truths in the complaints, but they’re far outweighed by the benefits.

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