Running The Clock Backwards To Judge Technological Progress
from the would-you-trade-one-for-the-other? dept
Kevin Donovan points us to a short but interesting essay by Steven Pinker, on technological progress. In it, he discusses the popularity of moral panics over new technologies, and claims by folks who say that Google/text messaging/the web/email/etc are "making us stupid." He suggests a rather simple test for determining how silly those are, which includes seeing whether or not you'd exchange what you have today for what you had in the past:
I would suggest another way to look at the effects of technology on our collective intelligence. Take the intellectual values that are timeless and indisputable: objectivity, truth, factual discovery, soundness of argument, insight, explanatory depth, openness to challenging ideas, scrutiny of received dogma, overturning of myth and superstition. Now ask, are new technologies enhancing or undermining those values? And as you answer, take care to judge the old and new eras objectively, rather than giving a free pass to whatever you got used to when you were in your 20s.The reason technology progresses the way it does is because it is progress. Otherwise, people wouldn't be using it. We use Wikipedia because it has many features that make it more useful. We use email/Twitter/text messaging/mp3s and other technologies for the same reason. They make life better in some way. Otherwise, they wouldn't get used at all.
One way to attain this objectivity is to run the clock backwards and imagine that old technologies are new and vice-versa. Suppose someone announced: "Here is a development that will replace the way you've been doing things. From now on, you won't be able to use Wikipedia. Instead you'll use an invention called The Encyclopedia Britannica. You pay several thousand dollars for a shelf-groaning collection of hard copies whose articles are restricted to academic topics, commissioned by a small committee, written by a single author, searchable only by their titles, and never change until you throw the entire set and buy new ones." Would anyone argue that this scenario would make us collectively smarter?