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.

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?
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.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Bradley Stewart, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 3:48am

    On Off High Medium Low

    I'm an old codger now however I do embrace new technologies. No matter what I do with them. I must say that they do wow me. It's just that sometimes I long for the days when things were simpler. One switch that gives me everything on the subject line. My only gripe with this stuff is because I never grew up with this stuff when something goes kafluie I have to call on an expert to solve my problem. I feel as though I have a vacuum cleaner hose attached to my wallet.

     

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    senshikaze (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 4:58am

    Re: On Off High Medium Low

    As one of those "experts" you will probably need from time to time, how do you think we feel? To do our job we have to be damn near specialized to a single product. If we don't, we get left behind by progress of that product.
    My job is user support at a medium size medical clinic, and because i spend so much time on user's computers, it almost feels like the rest of technology keeps on moving past me. I like other things besides what i specialize in, but because i am not specialized in the others there will always be someone else to take my position until i can become more specialized.
    There is no jack of all trades in the IT field because of this. Is it a lost practice? maybe. My dad can replace your windshield. And then just about any other part of your car even though he "specializes" in glass work. I can't do that with all computers. I try, but sometimes a problem with a system i am not familiar with (win 7 for example) i can only tell you to do the basics, reboot, run AV, etc.
    Of course we get paid alot for our specializations.

     

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  3.  
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    Tim, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:07am

    progress isn't in the eyes of the beholder

    They make life better in some way. Otherwise, they wouldn't get used at all.

    Except that some technologies are used like recreational drugs, to which the above quote applies equally well. I would argue that the likes of twitter, myspace, and their ilk are about as beneficial to society as a whole as recreational drugs. Certainly a small subset of users can manage and control their usage and gain an overall positive benefit from them, but for the vast majority of users these are mere distractions and wastes of time at best, and seriously detrimental to them at worst.

     

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    It's all in your perspective, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:30am

    Mostly Better

    In particular, the internet allows a much faster flow of information. This also allows for a much faster flow of stupid. For example, the email about Mars / Earth close approach. Other high tech available today facilitates the bad hollywood physics. Granted, not everyone believes these things are possible but in the past it was sort of obvious that it was fake. For example, you could see the strings suspending the rocketship and the smoke coming from the engine would raise. Now days some people believe that you can curve bullets. (the movie: Wanted) There are several websites which address bad hollywood physics. The increased ability to communicate does not help those who refuse to listen. For example, those who claim humans never landed on the moon. With overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they insist on believing their dogma. Many things are the same in their nature, they just occur faster.

     

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  5.  
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    Bradley Stewart, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:34am

    Re: Re: On Off High Medium Low

    Senshikaze Not long ago I was listening to someone on television speaking about this problem. He commented that Years ago with a little knowledge, some expertise and the willingness to to apply themselves just by opening the hood of a car and poking around one could fix their own automobile. He then said now you open the hood and there is another hood. What he said pardon the pun was really driven home to me when several years ago I was out to lunch with my mother and her car broke down. She phoned road service. A fellow came and explained that it would have to go into the shop. She inquired, can't you just fix the engine here. He said to her I don't think that you understand. At that Point he opened the hood. Sure enough there was another hood. Best Regards Bradley Stewart

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:36am

    The story is funny, but in the end, The Encyclopedia Britannica home edition was an improvement over what was there before.

    Before that, you would be lucky if your school had a library, and if they did, you would be lucky to have The Encyclopedia Britannica in a version within the last 20 years or so. You might have to go to the public library and hope they had one. Kids in smaller towns might have to go to the big city just to look something up.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica home editions were a major improvement, and helped to spread knowledge and information to an entire generation.

    Wikipedia? A great advancement perhaps, but history written by group memory and cited examples isn't always correct either. At some point, we may be trading speed for accuracy.

    heck, how is human knowledge improved by this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Masnick

    I also have to say this: This article is one of those 30,000 foot view things, which is odd to see on techdirt, which is usually so myopically close to subjects as to miss obvious things right around them. Mike, perhaps you can work on the focus a little bit and give us all a slightly more balanced view, rather than too close or too far? This one is so far away that, as Tim mentioned, many of the technologies you push as advancing our lives may not be all that. Heck, written a few years ago, you wouldn't have mentioned twitter, but you would have mentioned myspace. Transient entertainment is not the nature of technological advances, I think.

     

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    imfaral (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 5:48am

    Re: progress isn't in the eyes of the beholder

    Are distractions and time wasters really bad? Taken to an extreme yes, but overall? I would argue no. Just look at TV I know there was a huge "OMG people will never leave there house " because of TV reaction. Just look at people today, with the advent of Facebook and things like that people are interacting with more people then ever. Besides how often do you "just need a break"? Some people just use Facebook etc, for that. (Just want to add in that I don't use Facebook because I think it's a huge stalker net)

     

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    BBT, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 6:18am

    So this means copyright maximalism is progress, right? We wouldn't keep advancing the number of years on copyright if that weren't progress!

    This reads like it came off the desk of Doctor Pangloss. If it happened, it must have been progress! If it exists, it must be the best of all possible things. Our noses were created to hold eyeglasses!

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 6:19am

    I always wondered where my mandibula was...

     

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  10.  
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    Stupiduser (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 6:48am

    try this one

    I can see the article's encyclopedia example.

    But, try this one.

    You cell phones are no longer necessary. Because someone invented the conversation.

    Using this conversation, you say your ideas. They travel through the air to the intended recipient and others nearby allowing for "texting" like transference, but to multiple people at once. Let's see the iPhone do that.

    It is harder for these conversations to be held against you by anyone not there at the time, unlike those text messages and blog entries, that seem to haunt you forever.

    You should not be scared of conversations because they do reduce the issue of copyright infringement that MultiMedia Messaging Services will have in the near future.

     

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  11.  
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    chris (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 7:39am

    Re: Re: On Off High Medium Low

    I can't do that with all computers. I try, but sometimes a problem with a system i am not familiar with (win 7 for example) i can only tell you to do the basics, reboot, run AV, etc.

    most technologies have a shelf life, er go the skills necessary to use and support those technologies have a shelf life as well.

    in the dark days i could work all sorts of magic on systems using a dos boot disk. all of that stuff is now a lost art.

    today, knowing how to set up services and apps on mobile phones is only slightly less important to my job than knowing how to set up a server or a PC. if you had told me in 1999 that a significant portion of my job would be supporting mobile phones, i would have told you that you were crazy.

    things change, and you have to change along with them.

     

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  12.  
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    Benjie, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 8:20am

    Glad I grew up when I did

    I like where my generation is. I grew up during a time when there was A LOT of change. Computers were common enough to have one and I constantly had to adapt to changes. The biggest thing is I was young enough to have to understand how things worked, but not old enough to have to waste my time shuffling punch cards.

    I assume I'm going to have an easy time with change for the majority of my life.

     

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  13.  
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    nasch (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 9:08am

    Re:

    The story is funny, but in the end, The Encyclopedia Britannica home edition was an improvement over what was there before.

    Kind of the point of the article, isn't it? New things keep coming out that are better than the old things.

    Wikipedia? A great advancement perhaps, but history written by group memory and cited examples isn't always correct either.

    Just like Encyclopedia Britannica.

    Heck, written a few years ago, you wouldn't have mentioned twitter, but you would have mentioned myspace. Transient entertainment is not the nature of technological advances, I think.

    Interesting thing is, the marketplace decides that, rather than you. :-) Technological advances encompass everything from Twitter to the Large Hadron Collider. If they're not valued in some way as better than what came before, they fall by the wayside.

    I also have to say this: This article is one of those 30,000 foot view things

    What were you expecting, an in-depth analysis of Wikipedia? That wouldn't be a better article, just a different one, and maybe less interesting. There's nothing wrong with taking a wide view now and then, and looking closely at details at other times, especially when people can broaden or narrow the focus in the comments.

     

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  14.  
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    nasch (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 9:18am

    Re: try this one

    I can see the article's encyclopedia example.

    But, try this one.

    You cell phones are no longer necessary. Because someone invented the conversation.


    That doesn't really make sense, because you're talking and listening with a cell phone, just like you would with someone in the same room. Cell phones don't replace talking, just like Wikipedia doesn't replace reading. Cell phones replace landlines, so imagine if that went the other way.

    There's this great new invention called the home phone. Instead of a phone that you take with you everywhere you go, you only use the phone when you're at home (or you can borrow someone else's phone when you're at their house).

    There will be phones that you can use in public places if you pay for it, instead of using the cell phone you've already paid for. Also, the home phone doesn't burden you with features like contact lists, call history, calendars, cameras, email, and text messages.

    They're more reliable too. You can get one with a cord so that not only is it almost impossible to lose, but it doesn't need batteries or an electrical outlet!

    Are there some good things in that list? Yes! Are people ditching their cell phones to get landline phones? Quite the opposite. Cell phones took off because they are in almost every way superior to the technology that came before.

     

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  15.  
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    Doug Schuler, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 9:20am

    Can we make some progress on important issues?

    What's silly is the idea that an incredibly complex and nuanced question could be answered so glibly. Can't we expect something that's less simplistic and more thoughtful and useful from somebody of Pinker's stature?

     

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    tracker1 (profile), Nov 13th, 2009 @ 9:51am

    Re: Re: Re: On Off High Medium Low

    if you had told me in 1999 that a significant portion of my job would be supporting mobile phones, i would have told you that you were crazy.

    Funny, I'd have thought it was a natural progression, after spending a little time dealing with creating a Palm application, and seeing Handspring in use.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous, Nov 13th, 2009 @ 12:17pm

    The above article makes the following claim:
    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.
    However, this may ignore other reasons for technology to progress the way it does. It is easier or cheaper. The problem –easier and cheaper are not always better. They are sometimes, but not always.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 14th, 2009 @ 2:47am

    The article is myopic

    To what end is progress? We have all this technology, yet we cannot say with certainty that our lives are happier or more meaningful than the primitive. The American Indian did not know he needed a cell phone or a TV to be fullfilled; and so he was fullfilled. What future inventions do we not know about, that will be declared "neccessities" tomorrow! Are our lives any meaner today for the lack? Not for nothng, but if anybody thinks pop music represents musical progress over Beethoven due to it's consumer demand, well then I'll leave you to figure it out for yourselves over a bowl of microwave popcorn and American Idol reruns.

     

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  19.  
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    pr, Nov 15th, 2009 @ 11:20am

    Re: Mostly Better

    In particular, the internet allows a much faster flow of information. This also allows for a much faster flow of stupid. For example, the email about Mars / Earth close approach.

    That is a good thing. When you see it on the internet once, and it turns out to be B.S., you're a whole lot less likely to believe it the next time. And you're a lot less likely to believe any other B.S. the next time. It's free lesson in critical thinking for the entire world.

    I'm old enough to remember the Jupiter effect. There have probably been plenty of other ends of the world since then. Anybody has been through any of them will have no problem laughing off 2012.

     

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  20.  
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    Evrika, Apr 13th, 2010 @ 3:55am

    Technology can not grow up with out physics, peoples don`t like it, because it`s hard to understand those interesting science. If you have problem with that, physics problems solutions , help will come immediately. Learn physics people.

     

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