I’ve noted here before that Gordon Crovitz is my favorite technology policy columnist and that everything he pens for his “Information Age” column for The Wall Street Journal is well worth reading. His latest might be his best ever. It touches upon the great debate between Internet optimists and pessimists regarding the impact of digital technology on our culture and economy. His title is just perfect: “Is Technology Good or Bad? Yes.” His point is that you can find evidence that technological change has both beneficial and detrimental impacts, and plenty of people on both sides of the debate to cite it for you.
He specifically references the leading pessimist, Nicholas Carr, and optimist, Clay Shirky, of our time. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, Carr paints a dismal portrait of what the Internet is doing us and the world around us. Clay Shirky responds in books like Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in the a Connected Age, arguing that we are much better off because of the rise of the Net and digital technology.
This is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time noodling over here through the years and, most recently, I compiled all my random thoughts into a mega-post asking, “Are You an Internet Optimist or Pessimist?” That post tracks all the leading texts on both sides of this debate. I was tickled, therefore, when Gordon contacted me and asked for comment for his story after seeing my piece. [See, people really do still read blogs!] I told Gordon that I label my own position “pragmatic optimism,” which I summarized as follows: “The Internet and digital technologies are reshaping our culture, economy and society in most ways for the better, but not without some serious heartburn along the way.” My bottom line comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: “Were we really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty? I’ll take information overload over information poverty any day.”
Moreover, practically speaking, I don’t see any realistic way to roll back the clock to some supposed “good ‘ol days”–whenever those were. As Gordon argues, “Whatever the mix of good and bad, technology only advances and cannot be put back in the bottle.” Exactly right. Thus, we need to learn to assimilate new technologies into our lives, culture, and economy. Luckily, adaptation is something that we humans are very good at. Past experience tells us that we got through previous gut-wrenching technological / social revolutions; we can get through this one, too. But, again, there will be rough patches and legitimate issues that need to be addressed as we make this journey.
P.S. Here are a couple of other interesting essays on this topic that that have been released recently:
- Andrew McAfee’s terrific essay “I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist…” from his blog
- Michiko Kakutani essay in the New York Times, “Texts Without Contexts”
- Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal argues that “Information Overload is Nothing New“
- a great PBS documentary about these issues: “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier” (+ my thoughts on the film)
- a video from a Family Online Safety Institute event about the PBS documentary that features a discussion about Internet optimism vs. pessimism