Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society

by on January 31, 2010 · 194 comments

[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.

Web 1.0 Fight: Postman vs. Negroponte

In his 1992 anti-technology screed Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, the late social critic Neil Postman greeted the unfolding Information Age with a combination of skepticism and scorn.  Indeed, Postman’s book was a near-perfect articulation of the techo-pessimist’s creed.  “Information has become a form of garbage,” he claimed, “not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.”  If left unchecked, Postman argued, America’s new technopoly—“the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”—would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

Postman opened his polemic with the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word.  Postman reminded us how King Thamus responded to the god Theuth, who boasted of how his invention of writing would improve the wisdom and memory of the masses relative to the oral tradition of learning.  King Thamus shot back, “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  King Thamus then passed judgment himself about the impact of writing on society, saying he feared that the people “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”

And so Postman—fancying himself a bit of a modern King Thamus—cast judgment on today’s comparable technological advances and those who would glorify them:

we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo. We might call such people Technophiles. They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and to be approached cautiously. … If one is to err, it is better to err on the side of Thamusian skepticism.

Nicholas Negroponte begged to differ. An unapologetic Theuthian technophile, the former director of the MIT Media Lab responded on behalf of the techno-optimists in 1995 with his prescient polemic, Being Digital.  It was a paean to the Information Age, for which he served as one of the first high prophets—with Wired magazine’s back page frequently serving as his pulpit during the many years he served as a regular columnist.

Appropriately enough, the epilogue of Negroponte’s Being Digital was entitled “An Age of Optimism” and, like the rest of the book, it stood in stark contrast to Postman’s pessimistic worldview.  Although Negroponte conceded that technology indeed had a “dark side” in that it could destroy much of the old older, he believed that was inevitable, but also not cause for much concern. “Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped,” he insisted, and we must learn to appreciate the ways “digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.” (This sort of techno-determism is a theme we would see on display in many of the works by other Internet optimists that followed in Negroponte’s footsteps.)

To Postman’s persistent claim that America’s technopoly lacked a moral compass, Negroponte again conceded the point but took the glass-is-half-full view: “Computers are not moral; they cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and to death. But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism.”  His defense of the digital age rested on the “four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering.” Gazing into his techno-crystal ball in 1995, Negroponte forecast the ways in which those qualities would revolutionize society:

The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present. The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions. As children appropriate a global information resource, and as they discover that only adults need learner’s permits, we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before.

In many ways, that’s the world we occupy today; a world of unprecedented media abundance and unlimited communications and connectivity opportunities.

But the great debate about the impact of digitization and information abundance would not end with Postman and Negroponte. Theirs would only be Act I in a drama that continues to unfold, and it is growing more heated and complex with each new character that comes on the stage.

Web War II


The disciples of Postman and Negroponte are a colorful, diverse lot. The players in Act II of this drama occupy many diverse professions—journalists, technologists, business consultants, sociologists, economists, lawyers, etc.—and they are disagreeing even more vehemently and vociferously about the impact of the Internet and digital technologies than Postman and Negroponte did.

In Exhibit 1, I have listed the Internet optimists and pessimists and list their key works.

Theuthian Technophiles
(aka “The Internet Optimists”)
Thamusian Technophobes
(aka “The Internet Pessimists”)
Nicholas Negroponte,
Being Digital
Neil Postman,
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Virginia Postrel,
The Future and Its Enemies

Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture
James Surowiecki,
The Wisdom of Crowds
Lee Siegel, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Nick Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom Mark Helprin,
Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto
Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More Cass Sunstein,
Kevin Kelly,Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torment of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
Jeff Howe,
Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business
Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)
Don Tapscott & Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics:
How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
Steve Talbott,
Devices of the Soul:
Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines‎
Jeff Jarvis,
What Would Google Do
John Freeman, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox
Tyler Cowen, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World Jaron Lanier,
You Are Not a Gadget
Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution David Trend, The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto

In Exhibit 2, I have sketched out the major lines of disagreement between these two camps and divided those disagreements into (1) Cultural / Social beliefs vs. (2) Economic / Business beliefs.

Optimists Pessimists

Cultural / Social beliefs

Net is participatory Net is polarizing
Net facilitates personalization (welcome of “Daily Me” that digital tech allows) Net facilitates fragmentation (fear of the “Daily Me”)
“a global village balkanization and fears of “mob rule
heterogeneity / encourages diversity of thought and expression homogeneity / Net leads to close-mindedness
allows self-actualization diminishes personhood
Net a tool of liberation & empowerment Net a tool of frequent misuse & abuse
believe Net can help educate fear dumbing-down of masses
anonymous communication is a net good; encourages vibrant debate + whistleblowing fear of anonymity; say it debases culture & leads to lack of accountability
welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learning concern about information overload; esp. impact on learning & reading
Economic / Business beliefs
benefits of “Free” (increasing importance of “gift economy”) costs of “Free” (“free” = threat to quality & business models)
mass collaboration is generally more important individual effort is generally more important
embrace of “amateur” creativity superiority of “professionalism
superiority of “open systems” of production superiority of “proprietary” models of production
“wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; benefits of crowdsourcing “wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; collective intelligence is oxymoron; + “Sharecropper” concern @ exploiting free labor

When you boil it all down, there are two major points of contention between the optimists and pessimists:

  1. The impact of technology on learning & culture & the role of experts vs. amateurs in that process.
  2. The promise—or perils—of personalization.

The Debate over Learning & Culture

  • Internet optimists and pessimists have engaged in heated debates over role of amateur production and benefits of abundant media
  • pessimists fear impact of Net and “cult of amateur” on “professional” media
  • without “enforceable scarcity” and protection for the “enlightened class,” the pessimists wonder how “high quality” news or “high art” will get funded and disseminated; and they worry about the decline of authority & truth
  • optimists argue that new modes of production (namely peer-production) will be an adequate (if not superior) alternative
    • or they believe new business models will evolve to support professional media
  • but pessimists argue that all the new choices are largely false choices
    • participatory democracy all bunk (“mob rule” and rumor mill mongering)
    • just more force-fed commercial propaganda; concerns about advertising
    • also worry about “digital sharecropping” where small group of elites make money off backs of free labor
  • optimists counter that Web 2.0 offers real choices and voices
    • optimists argue that many (perhaps most) aren’t in it for the money
    • they do it for love of knowledge & “free culture”
  • pessimists argue that “free” culture isn’t free at all; often just parasitic copying / piracy
    • could have profound ramifications for future of news, journalism, “high culture”
    • fear loss of trusted intermediaries & authorities
    • could “dumb down” the masses
  • the centrality of Wikipedia to the discussion serves as a microcosm of the entire debate
    • does Wikipedia mark the decline of authority?
    • what is “truth,” the pessimists ask? [“truthiness” fear, a la S. Colbert & Manjoo]
    • who and what can be trusted if everyone is considered an authority?
    • on the other hand, what if it works (at least reasonably well)?
    • what does that tell us about peer production / crowdsourcing?

The Debate over the Promise or Perils of Personalization

  • both optimists and pessimists agree that Net & Web 2.0 is leading to more “personalized” media experience
    • but they vehemently disagree on whether that is good or bad
    • what will it mean for participatory democracy?
  • pessimists fear Negroponte’s “Daily Me” (i.e., hyper-personalization) leads to:
    • homogenization
    • close-mindedness
    • an online echo-chamber
    • overload of choices + just more corporate brainwashing
  • optimists counter that personalization leads to:
    • heterogeneity / chance for everyone to be heard
    • openness
    • exposure to new thinking and opinions
    • abundance of choices = diversity of thought / participation
  • in the extreme, some pessimists fear the “mechanization of the soul” and the “surrender to the machine”
  • while that may sound a bit over the top, it doesn’t help that some optimists speak of the noosphere & “global consciousness” and seem to long for the eventual singularity

Who’s Got It Right?

  • On balance, I believe the optimists generally have the better of the argument today
  • But pessimists make many fair points that deserve to be taken seriously; they just need a more reasonable articulation of (some of) those concerns
  • The better approach is what I call “pragmatic optimism,” which attempts to rid the optimist paradigm of its kookier, pollyannish thinking while also taking into account some of the very legitimate concerns raised by the pessimists, but rejecting its Luddite fringe in the process.

Thoughts on the Pessimists…

  • First and foremost, the pessimists need better spokespersons! Or, they at least need a more moderated, less hysterical tone when addressing concerns raised by technological progress (many of which are quite legitimate).
  • It’s often difficult to take the pessimists seriously when they persist with their seeming outright hostility to most forms of technological progress / change. Every one of them claim they are not a Luddite, and often I believe them. But the tone of some of their writing, and the thrust of some of their recommendations, have clear Luddite tendencies.
  • Moreover, their endless name-calling and derision for the digital generation is, at times, just as insulting and immature as they “mob” they repeatedly castigate in their works. Too often, their criticism devolves into philosophical snobbery and blatant elitism. Constantly looking down their noses at digital natives and all “amateur” production doesn’t help them win any converts.
  • It’s quite shocking how the pessimists have almost nothing good to say about Wikipedia and demonize it endlessly. Much the same goes for open source and other collaborative efforts. They don’t appear willing to accept the possibility of any benefits coming from collective efforts. And they wrongly treat the rise of collective / collaborative efforts as a zero-sum game; they seem to imagine it represents a net loss of individual effort & “personhood.” That simply doesn’t follow.
  • Most importantly, the pessimists need to come to grips with the Information Revolution and offer more constructive and practical solutions to legitimately difficult transitional problems created by disintermediating influences of the digital technologies and Net.
  • The nostalgia the pessimists typically espouse for the past is a common refrain of cultural and technological critics who fear that the “good ‘ol days” are behind us and the current good-for-nothing generation and their new-fangled gadgets are steering us straight into a moral abyss.  The truth typically proves less cataclysmic, of course.  The great thing about humans is that we adapt better than other creatures. When it comes to technological change, resiliency is hard-wired into our genes.  We learn how to use the new tools that are given to us and gradually assimilate them into our lives and culture.  Indeed, we have lived through more radical revolutions than the Information Revolution. We can adapt and learn to live with some of the legitimate difficulties & downsides of the Information Age.
  • The pessimists are at their best when highlighting the very legitimate concerns about the challenges that accompany technological change, including the impact of the digital revolution on “professional” media and the decline of authority among trusted experts and intermediaries.
    • we absolutely don’t want to lose all that
    • there are real benefits associated with it
    • and we need to find a way to fund “professional” media / art going forward
  • But, practically speaking, what would the pessimists have us do if we can’t mitigate these problems? Would they roll back the clock with burdensome restrictions? As Ben Casnocha noted recently: “the wind at the backs of all techno-optimists … [is] the forward momentum of technological development. You cannot turn back the clock. It is impossible to envision a future where there is less information and fewer people on social networks. It is very possible to envision increasing abundance along with better filters to manage it. The most constructive contributions to the debate, then, heed Moore’s Law in the broadest sense and offer specific suggestions for how to harness the change for the better.”  That’s what many pessimists have failed to do in their works.

Thoughts on the Optimists…

  • The optimists currently have the better of the debate as the abundance of Web 2.0 riches is generally benefiting culture / society.
  • Relative to the past it is almost impossible to see how one could argue society has not benefited from the Internet and new digital technologies. The Digital Revolution has greatly empowered masses and offered them more informational inputs.
  • An age of abundance is certainly preferable to an age of information scarcity!
  • But optimists need to be less Pollyanna-ish and avoid becoming the “technopolists”  (or digital utopians) that Postman feared were taking over our society
    • Way too much Rousseauian romanticism at work in some optimist writings. All this talk of the Net “remaking man” or human nature is pure rubbish.
    • Not all change is good change; the optimists need to be mature enough to understand and address the occasional downsides of digital life without dismissing the critics.
    • And they need to acknowledge that sometimes the wisdom of crowds really can = the stupidity of crowds (when does collective intelligence devolve into herd mentality?) And all this crazy talk of “the hive mind” and the “noosphere” must end.  Some of optimists sound like they long for life in The Matrix; bring on the Singularity!  That’s when you know an optimists has crossed over into the realm of quixotic techno-utopianism.
  • Optimists often overplay the benefits of collective intelligence, collaboration, and the role of amateur production.  They need to frame Wiki / peer-production models as a complement to professional media, not a replacement for it.
    • Could The New York Times really be cobbled together by amateurs each day?
    • Why aren’t there any really compelling open source video games?
    • There is a big difference between “remix culture” and “rip-off culture”
    • “The Long Tail” is not “the future of all business”; but it is an increasingly important part of it, and it is wonderful that it is so much more accessible than it was in the past.
    • Will we really be better off if all professionals & intermediaries disappear? Optimists play the “old media just don’t get it” card too often and snobbishly dismiss all their concerns and efforts to reinvent themselves
  • Optimists need to place technological progress in context and appreciate that, as Postman argued, there are some moral dimensions to technological progress that deserve attention.
  • Of course, on the other hand, some of those moral consequences are profoundly positive, which the pessimists usually fail to appreciate or even acknowledge.

Conclusion: Toward “Pragmatic Optimism”


  • Generally speaking, I believe the optimists currently have the better of the debate. It is impossible for me to believe that we were better off in an era of information poverty & un-empowered masses.
  • But there’s a kernel of truth to what the pessimists predict about how the passing of the old order leaving society without some things that might be worth preserving.  And they are certainly correct that each of us should think about how to better balance new technologies and assimilate them into our lives.
  • The sensible middle ground position is “pragmatic optimism”: We should embrace the amazing technological changes at work in today’s Information Age but do so with a healthy dose of humility and appreciation for the disruptive impact and pace of that change. [See my “Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed” below]
  • We need to think about how to mitigate the negative impacts associated with technological change without adopting the paranoid tone or Luddite-ish recommendations of the pessimists.
  • And it is important for us to personally exercise some personal restraint in terms of the role technology plays in our life. While pessimists from Plato and Postman certainly went too far, there is a kernel of truth to their claim that, taken to an extreme, technology can have a negative impact on life and learning.  We need to focus on the Aristotelian mean. We must avoid neo-Luddite calls for a return to “the good ‘ol days” on the one hand, while also rejecting techno-utiopian Pollyanna-ism on the other
  • Regardless, the old Theuth-Thamus debate about the relationship between technological change and its impact on culture and society will continue to rage. There is no chance this debate will die down anytime soon. And just wait till virtual reality goes mainstream!  Oh brother, now that is going to be a lively debate. I might turn into a Thamusian once I find my son playing a virtual gangster or pimp in “Grand Theft Auto 12: The Immersive Experience.”
  • Nonetheless, generally speaking, I remain quite bullish about the prospects for technology to generally improve the human condition.


The Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed

by Adam Thierer

I believe that 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.

I believe that the world of information abundance that has dawned is vastly superior to the world of information poverty that we just left. But I also understand that not all information is equal and that that the rise of abundance raises concerns about information overload, objectionable content, and the role of “authority” and “truth.”

I believe the era of traditional Mass Media is coming to an end, but “professional” media institutions and creators continue to play a vital role in the creation, aggregation, and dissemination of news, information, culture, and entertainment. The Internet, however, will force gut-wrenching changes on traditional media institutions and some of the more traditionally vital ones (ex: daily local newspapers) will struggle to re-invent themselves, or may wither away entirely. And while I believe that “professional” journalism faces very serious challenges from the rise of the Internet and user-generated content, but I also believe that hybrid forms of news-gathering and reporting are offering society exciting new ways to learn about the world around them.

I believe Wikipedia is an amazing example of collection action / intelligence at work, but I also understand it is not without flaws and limitations. I believe Wikipedia is a wonderful complement, but not a complete substitute, for other media and information sources and inputs.

I believe that free and open source software (FOSS) has produced enormous social / economic benefits, but I do not believe that FOSS (or “wiki” models) will replace all proprietary business models or methods.  Each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they will continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.

I believe the Long Tail is a powerful phenomenon, but not “the future of all business.” It is now a more important part of the future of business, but not the entirety of it. But it is wonderful that it is more accessible than ever and that we have found ways to monetize it to benefit less well know creators and innovators.

I believe there is a difference between “remix culture” and “ripoff culture.”  Remix culture generally enhances and extends culture and creativity. Blatant content piracy, on the other hand, can discourage the creative efforts of the citizenry and deprive some of society’s most gifted creators of the incentive to produce culturally beneficial works. Likewise, hacking, circumvention, and reverse-engineering all play an important and legitimate role in our new digital economy, but one need not accept the legitimacy of those activities when conducted for nefarious purposes (think identity theft or chip-modding to facilitate video game piracy.)

I believe that the Internet has empowered the masses and created a world of “pro-sumers” that gives every man, woman, and child a soapbox on which to speak to the world. But that does not mean that all of them will have something interesting to say, and I won’t praise user-generated content as a good in and of itself. It’s quality, not volume, that counts.

I believe that the Internet’s empowering nature has changed much about society and culture, but I do not believe in the romanticism some espouse about how the Net “remaking man” or changing human nature in any fundamental way. The Internet does not liberate us from all earthly constraints and it cannot magically solve all of civilization’s problems.

I believe that the Internet is reinvigorating deliberative democracy and giving us increased exposure to a breathtaking diversity of views previously inaccessible. On the other hand, I understand that some will often seek out only those views that reinforce their pre-existing biases.

I believe in the liberating power of freedom of speech and expression, and appreciate that the Internet and the rise of user-generated content has given us a world of unprecedented information and cultural riches. I also understand, however, that unrestricted freedom of speech and expression permits an increase in the prevalence of objectionable, even loathsome, speech and content. On net, however, (excuse the pun) the Internet is the most important medium of human communication and expression yet.

In sum, there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the Internet and its role in shaping our lives, culture, economy, and society. But that doesn’t mean it will be all roses going forward.


Additional Reading (from me):

Additional Reading (from others):

  • and here’s a great video from 1995 featuring the late Neil Postman with his pessimistic take on cyberspace..

Also, courtesy of the Brain Pickings blog, check out this amazing 1972 documentary based on Alvin Toffler’s famous 1970 book, Future Shock. It perfectly foreshadowed so many of today’s technology policy debates.

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