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The More Things Change…

…the more they stay the same.

There is a very interesting article in the Washington Post by George Will, titled “Technologies give velocity to stupidity, but they don’t make people stupid” (or in blunter terms, people are always stupid, but technology makes it easier to spread stupidity, so it just seems like there is more of it).

I am a total technologist, and I can’t imagine living without the internet and the web. But there are times when I wonder if the internet (and especially social media) is pushing the world in a good or a bad direction. But Will’s article snapped me back to reality with a simple example, namely the spread of transcontinental trains and telegraph lines during the time of Abraham Lincoln.

Many 21st-century Americans are impressed, and distressed, by the supposed power of late-20th-century technologies, especially the Internet and social media, to shape society, and them. Two 19th-century technologies stirred somewhat similar uneasiness: The railroad and the telegraph, which were arguably as socially transformative as digital innovations are said to be, saved the nation from dismemberment, and fertilized the culture of freedom.

But these same technologies also spread “fake news about Washington burning, enslaved people rebelling, President James Buchanan resigning, Republicans sharing their wives, Lincoln being a cannibal”.

Nowadays, nobody worries that established technologies — not just railroads and telegraphs, but also airplanes and telephones — will destroy the world. And yet, in their heyday, people did worry about these new technologies.

In 1858, when the first transatlantic cable connected New York with London, the New York Times worried that the telegraph might make the velocity of news “too fast for the truth.” Sound familiar?

Yes, new technology, like any change, can take some getting used to. But the real problem is one we have always had, namely stupidity.

Today, the Internet and social media enable instantaneous dissemination of stupidity, thereby creating the sense that there is an increasing quantity of stupidity relative to the population’s size. This might be true, but blame it on animate, hence blameworthy, things — blowhards with big megaphones, incompetent educators, etc. — not technologies. Technologies are giving velocity to stupidity, but are not making people stupid. On Jan. 6, the Capitol was stormed by primitives wielding smartphones that, with social media, facilitated the assembling and exciting of the mob. But mobs predate mankind’s mastery of electricity.

Like railroads and the telegraph, today’s technologies have consequences about how and what we think. They do not relieve anyone of responsibility for either.

Dishonest people will always find a way to take advantage of people who are ignorant about new technologies. The answer is not to blame the new technologies (for that is not the real problem), but for technologists to take on the responsibility to help people learn and adapt to these new technologies. It will take time and effort, but it will be worth it.

© Dave Whamond
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3 Comments

  1. Lewtoo wrote:

    So, Forrest Gump was right on- Stupid is as stupid does

    Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  2. Jeff wrote:

    While I’m technically a Millenial, I have a serious love/hate relationship with technology. Up until the Pandemic forced me to work from home, I had no internet, cable, or phone service at the house. I still spend most of my time away from the screen, and have been off of social media for years.

    Being away from the screen has made me realize how crazy people can be online. The conspiracies that spin around, the misinformation, and the difficulty in separating truth from fiction are serious problems that have significantly undermined our democracy. Our society only functions when the public is well-informed.

    Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Jeff, I would say that you actually have a healthy relationship with technology. It might be a surprise to know that — while I claim to be a “total technologist” — I spent a considerable amount of time without a telephone in my home (on purpose), and avoided having a cell phone for many years (and often leave home without it even now). In addition, I mostly stay away from social media. [Although I will admit that I find both cell phones and social media very useful when I am traveling.]

    That is the whole point. Figuring out the good uses of technologies — and sticking to those — is the solution to the problems caused by new technologies.

    Saturday, April 17, 2021 at 10:15 am | Permalink

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