I enjoyed this Wall Street Journal essay by Daniel H. Wilson on “The Terrifying Truth About New Technology.” It touches on many of the themes I’ve discussed here in my essays on techno-panics, fears about information overload, and the broader battle throughout history between technology optimists and pessimists about the impact of new technologies on culture, life, and learning. Wilson correctly notes that:
The fear of the never-ending onslaught of gizmos and gadgets is nothing new. The radio, the telephone, Facebook — each of these inventions changed the world. Each of them scared the heck out of an older generation. And each of them was invented by people who were in their 20s.
Young people adapt quickly to the most absurd things. Consider the social network Foursquare, in which people not only willingly broadcast their location to the world but earn goofy virtual badges for doing so. My first impulse was to ignore Foursquare—for the rest of my life, if I have to. And that’s the problem. As we get older, the process of adaptation slows way down. Unfortunately, we depend on alternating waves of assimilation and accommodation to adapt to a constantly changing world. For [developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget, this balance between what’s in the mind and what’s in the environment is called equilibrium. It’s pretty obvious when equilibrium breaks down. For example, my grandmother has phone numbers taped to her cellphone. Having grown up with the Rolodex (a collection of numbers stored next to the phone), she doesn’t quite grasp the concept of putting the numbers in the phone. Why are we so nostalgic about the technology we grew up with? Old people say things like: “This new technology is stupid. I liked (new, digital) technology X better when it was called (old, analog) technology Y. Why, back in my day….” Which leads inexorably to, “I just don’t get it.”
There’s a simple explanation for this phenomenon: “adventure window.” At a certain age, that which is familiar and feels safe becomes more important to you than that which is new, different, and exciting. Think of it as “set-in-your-ways syndrome.”
I first heard the term “adventure window” on an NPR program back in 2006 during a wonderful Robert Krulwich spot entitled “Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?” Krulwich’s piece featured a neuroscientist who had been studying why it is that humans (indeed, all mammals) have an innate tendency to lose their willingness to try new things after a certain point in their lives. He called this our “adventure window.” The neuroscientist came to study this phenomenon after growing increasingly annoyed with his young male research assistant, who would come to work every day of the week listening to something new and quite different than the day before. Meanwhile, the much older neuroscience professor lamented the fact that he had been listening to the same Bob Marley tape seemingly forever.
Simply stated, our willingness to try new things and experiment with new forms of culture — our “adventure window” — fades rapidly after certain key points in life, as we gradually get set in our ways. For the professor and many of the rest of us, our adventure window comes slamming shut sometime in our mid-30s.
This is doubly interesting to me because it provides another explanation for why one generation protests an older generation’s censorial ways only to themselves become advocates of repressing the next generation’s culture and technology when they grow older. Many cultural critics and average folk alike always seem to think the best days are behind us and the current good-for-nothing generation and their new-fangled gadgets and culture are garbage. This is the reason I opened my old report on “Parental Controls & Online Child Protection” in the following way:
What effect does media exposure have on our children? That question has generated heated debates from one generation to the next. From the waltz to rock and roll to rap music, from movies to comic books to video games, from radio and television to the Internet and social networking websites — every new media format or technology spawns a fresh debate about the potential negative effects it might have on kids. Parents, educators, academics, social scientists, media pundits, and many others all offer their opinions, but rarely is any consensus reached.
“These concerns stretch back to the birth of literacy itself,” notes Vaughan Bell in his excellent Slate essay from February 2010 entitled, “Don’t Touch That Dial! A History of Media Technology Scares, from the Printing Press to Facebook.” Bell observed:
Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.
Indeed, as I point out in my old “Net optimists vs. pessimisms” essay and subsequent book chapter, you can actually trace this debate all the way back to the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word. The debate between King Thamus and the god Theuth has been the template for every debate about culture and technology that has followed. Read it for yourself and see. Basically, King Thamus’ adventure window had slammed shut and the spoken tradition of learning was where he wanted progress to stop. Theuth stressed the benefits of a new technology — writing — for memory and learning.
And so the debate continues. It will never end.