[I’ve been working on an outline for a book I hope to write surveying technological skepticism throughout history. I first started thinking about this topic two years when I noticed that a great number of recent books about Internet policy could generally be grouped into one of two camps: Internet optimists vs. Internet pessimists. I subsequently penned an essay on the subject that generated a fair bit of attention. So, I figured I must be on to something, and the more Net policy books I read, the more I realized that the divisions between these two camps were growing wider and increasingly heated. Thus, I thought I would share this very rough draft (much of it still in outline form) of the opening chapter of that book I want to write about this great intellectual war over the impact of technology on society. I invite reader input. Update Jan. 2011: I finally published a full-length essay on this topic. You can find it here. ]
The impact of technological change on culture, learning, and morality has long been the subject of intense debate, and every technological revolution brings out a fresh crop of both pessimists and pollyannas. Indeed, a familiar cycle has repeat itself throughout history whenever new modes of production (from mechanized agriculture to assembly-line production), means of transportation (water, rail, road, or air), energy production processes (steam, electric, nuclear), medical breakthroughs (vaccination, surgery, cloning), or communications techniques (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) have appeared on the scene.
The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.
The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.
Our current Information Revolution is no different. It too has its share of techno-pessimists and techno-optimists. Indeed, before most of us had even heard of the Internet, people were already fighting about it—or at least debating what the rise of the Information Age meant for our culture, society, and economy. Continue reading →