Information Revolutions & Cultural / Economic Tradeoffs

by on December 23, 2011 · 8 comments

My thanks to both Maria H. Andersen and Michael Sacasas for their thoughtful responses to my recent Forbes essay on “10 Things Our Kids Will Never Worry About Thanks to the Information Revolution.” They both go point by point through my Top 10 list and offer an alternative way of looking at each of the trends I identify. What their responses share in common is a general unease with the hyper-optimism of my Forbes piece. That’s understandable. Typically in my work on technological “optimism” and “pessimism” — and yes, I admit those labels are overly simplistic — I always try to strike a sensible balance between pollyannism and hyper-pessimism as it pertains to the impact of technological change on our culture and economy. I have called this middle ground position “pragmatic optimism.” In my Forbes essay, however, I was in full-blown pollyanna mode. That doesn’t mean I don’t generally feel very positive about the changes I itemized in that essay, rather, I just didn’t have the space in a 1,000-word column to identify the tradeoffs inherent in each trend. Thus, Andersen and Sacasas are rightfully pushing back against my lack of balance.

But there is a problem with their slightly pessimistic pushback, too. To better explain my own position and respond to Andersen and Sacasas, let me return to the story we hear again and again in discussion about technological change: the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word. In the tale, the god Theuth comes to King Thamus and boasts of how Theuth’s 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.”

After recounting Plato’s allegory in my essay, “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society,” I noted how this same tension has played out in every subsequent debate about the impact of a new technology on culture, values, morals, language, learning, and so on. It is a never-ending cycle. Now, here’s the interesting thing about that allegory that you will be surprised to hear an optimist like me admit: King Thamus was right! Well, at least partially right. There is little doubt that the invention of writing largely displaced the tradition of oral learning and instruction. Let’s face it, once people knew they could write something down or go back and read a passage from an important text, what was the use in memorizing it? Thus, there was a clear cost associated with the advent of writing and printing: A diminished interest in committing lessons or texts to memory. More profoundly, one might argue this also diminished our cognitive capabilities by requiring less of a mental workout for our brains. Thus, had Nick Carr been around to document the Theuth-Thamus debate, he might have penned a book entitled, “Is Writing Making Us Stupid?” (I’m assuming everyone is aware of Nick’s recent article asking “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and his subsequent book, The Shallows, which discussed “what the Internet is doing to our brains.”) Of course, it would have been a bit ironic for Nick to write it all down, so perhaps he would have just memorized it all and verbally passed his analysis along to descendants and followers!

Anyway, here’s what I am getting at by returning to Plato’s allegory: Technological change forces tradeoffs upon us. It forces sacrifices. There are definitely losses. But, in each case, we must ask two essential questions:

(1) Don’t the benefits of technological change generally outweigh the costs? I think they generally do, and that’s why I tend to side with the optimists more often than not. Sure, we can find plenty of reasons to be nostalgic about the decline of letter-writing, the disappearance of expensive encyclopedias, the end of typing classes, the elimination of phone booths on the corner, the loss of community video stores or record stores, or any of the other things I identified in my Forbes essay. But we should consider the many ways in which those changes have generally benefited society and opened the door to new innovations, new ways of learning and communicating, and new forms of culture and expression.

(2) Even if we are skeptical about the benefits of technological change, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to take steps to slow down technological change? What sort of steps are we talking about? Who makes that call or determines those responses? These are difficult but essential questions. Too many social critics get a free pass when it comes to answering them. This is what always drives me batty when reading the work of Net pessimists like Neil Postman, Lee Siegel, Andrew Keen, Jaron Lanier, etc. These guys excel at the art of the teardown. They can lambast the agents and elements of technological change with immense rhetorical power. At times, even I find their case convincing.  But these critics are horrible when it comes to proposing alternatives or constructive solutions. Often they have none. I believe it is the duty of a good social critic to offer constructive solutions to the problems they identify. One reason they probably don’t offer many is because they are simply afraid to admit that, if they could play God for a day, they probably would roll back the clock and slow or stop many forms of technological change.

The more constructive approach to these challenges comes back to education and empowerment. If we can be mature enough to (a) admit that pessimistic social critics have some valid concerns but that (b) the optimists are right about the benefits typically outweighing the costs, then the logical response is to take steps to educate people about technological change and empower them to deal with it. Other times, however, people simply have to learn how to adapt and be resilient through experimentation and coping strategies. It isn’t easy, of course. But education can help here, too. I’ve spent time trying to educate my father and other older relatives about how to use digital technologies they continue to be very uncomfortable with. I appreciate their concerns about privacy, security, and technological complexity. These are valid concerns or complaints. But these technologies are not going away and I have taken upon myself to help them assimilate the new tools and methods into their lives. I also mentor my children and guide their use of these new information technologies. They are surprisingly good at adapting to their new tools, but we must take to heart the lessons the social critics and pessimists offer about the downsides and dangers of some of those new tools.

As you can sense, my perspective here is very much shaped by the fact that I am, for the most part, a technological determinist. Not a rigid or “hard” tech determinist, but at least a “soft” one.  In a brilliant and highly provocative recently paper, “Hasta La Vista Privacy, or How Technology Terminated Privacy,” Konstantinos K. Stylianou of the University of Pennsylvania Law School discusses varieties of technological determinism as it pertains to information control and noted:

In-between the two extremes (technology as the defining factor of change and technology as a mere tangent of change) and in a multitude of combinations falls the so called soft determinism; that is, variations of the combined effect of technology on one hand and human choices and actions on the other. (p. 46)

Unfortunately, Stylianou notes, “The scope of soft determinism is unfortunately so broad that is loses all normative value. Encapsulated in the axiom ‘human beings do make their world, but they are also made by it,’ soft determinism is reduced to the self-evident.”  Nonetheless, he argues, “a compromise can be reached by mixing soft and hard determinism in a blend that reserves for technology the predominant role only in limited cases,” since he believes “there are indeed technologies so disruptive by their very nature they cause a certain change regardless of other factors.” (p. 46) He concludes his essay by noting:

it seems reasonable to infer that the thrust behind technological progress is so powerful that it is almost impossible for traditional legislation to catch up. While designing flexible rules may be of help, it also appears that technology has already advanced to the degree that is is able to bypass or manipulate legislation. As a result, the cat-and-mouse chase game between the law and technology will probably always tip in favor of technology. It may thus be a wise choice for the law to stop underestimating the dynamics of technology, and instead adapt to embrace it. (p. 54)

That pretty much sums up where I’m at on most information policy issues and explains why I sound so fatalistic at times. But my soft determinism also explains why I feel it is so important to devise coping strategies to help us through the changes that the information revolution has ushered in and forced upon us. There’s just no putting the digital genie back in the bottle. We can wax nostalgic all we want about those supposedly “good ‘ol days” but they ain’t never coming back. And they weren’t that great anyway!


If this discussion interests you, you might want to read my book chapter from the book The Next Digital Decade, which was entitled, “The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 1: Saving the Net From Its Detractors.”   Oh, and if you don’t already have Michael Sacasas’s blog (The Frailest Thing) at the top of your RSS feed, add it now. Absolutely terrific reading, even when I don’t agree with (or even understand!) all of it.

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