The Perils of Progress

21/07/2010 14:21



We had just heard a lecture by an exquisitely sensitive, painfully alert poet friend of ours about how we live today. She ranged widely and brilliantly and did not shy away from hazarding, ever so gently, a few doubts about what the Internet was doing to the feel of our daily life. These days, even a few well-considered, measured reservations about digital gadgetry apparently cannot be tolerated, and our poet friend was informed by forward-looking members of the audience that she was fearful of change, nostalgic, in short, reactionary with all its nasty political connotations. How, I whispered to my husband, is being pro- or anti-technology a political stance? It says nothing, I thought to myself, about where one stands on justice, equality, or freedom, except in the rather debased form of "access" to information. I was abruptly brought back to the lecture hall, however, when I heard an ardent champion of blogs speak the word "dinosaur" with equal parts conviction and contempt. How tiresome, I again whispered to my husband. How many times have I seen skeptics of progress (myself included) turned into dinosaurs? Was there really no way of responding to one's opponents except to doom them to extinction?Office 2007 makes life great!

 The other morning, I felt the same unfair stacking of the deck against my sensibility when I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Steven Pinker, a popularizer of evolutionary psychology, where he defended Twitter, e-mail, PowerPoint, and Google from the charge that they are "making us stupid." (Whether they are or not, typing that sentence, I couldn't help thinking that their silly names and broken punctuation have a decidedly stupid adolescent feel about them.) It is a tried-and-true strategy of boosters of progress, even if they don't know they are following in a well-established tradition, to offer a catalogue of what now appears to be irrational fears about earlier versions of whatever they are promoting, the better to discredit present-day naysayers. Pinker, true to type, opens his piece: "New forms of media have always caused moral panics. The printing press, newspapers, paperbacks, and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers' brainpower and moral fiber."

Just as these, in Pinker's estimation, proved to be false alarms, so, too, he confidently predicts, will be the case with the current moral panic over new electronic technologies. When I read his list of "reality checks" that are supposed to mollify critics—for example, "the decades of television, transistor radios, and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continually"—I can't say that I felt reassured. Instead, I was struck, as I often am at such moments, by the thought that if intelligent, sensitive people have long and consistently been alarmed by a particular class of thing, instead of automatically assuming our superiority to them, we might better assume they were aware of something to which we have since become oblivious and that it is worth our while to attend carefully to their warnings.