You can't blame the tech

By Luke Van Der Male | 9/21/14 2:02pm


It seems perennially popular to point to phones and computers when describing the “problem with kids these days.” Normally, I assume these neanderthalic thoughts are the fault of normal xenophobia and inexperience. This assumption, however, cannot survive my recent encounters with both students who participate in the future and professors who should know better. It seems obvious to me that blaming technology for social malaise is the easy way out, and the boy has cried about this particular wolf before.

In the excellent webcomic xkcd by Randall Munroe, a frame titled “The Pace of Modern Life” collects the concerns of magazine editors, school speakers, and even journal articles. Without exception, they speak of the problems with today’s society and how the good old days of careful communication are gone, replaced forever by technology. Round up the usual suspects you say? Surely it is cellphones or laptops, or Google perhaps? Nonsense my good friend. The alleged culprits here are cheap letter writing, busy businessmen, summary articles, and the speed of “modern” living in general. “Modern” because, the most recent complaint was from 1915.

Perhaps the point has not been illustrated. Plato warns us about the societal damage the new art form in his day, plays, can cause, and Shakespeare required a political defender to protect his work from Puritans. If spoken language, smoke signals, plays, short letters, and email never killed civilization I’m willing to bet smartphones won’t. A more interesting question than how technology is ruining us is which periods of history we weren’t whining about how technology is ruining us.

Neither is there any evidence to show that technology makes us worse thinkers. In 2003, The Economist ran an article called “No Text Please, we’re American”, the subject of which I hope you can deduce. But who was texting? Those same places that consistently outperform us academically. So to argue that texting is making us dumber is to argue those places that adopted earlier would be outperforming us even more if they hadn’t. 

In fact, I’ll argue that technology is doing the opposite by giving us completely new methods of experiencing reality. Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, has been commandeered by the BeAnotherLab in Barcelona. At the lab, users switch perspectives with a user of the opposite gender, and thus from their point of view appear to switch bodies. If that’s not consciousness-raising, I don’t know what is.

The reality of it is that it’s easy to ascribe the bad parts of the human condition to new toys. As long as people could feel they’ve felt lonely and alienated, and no technology I’ve seen yet promises to assuage that. Does a bus full of people staring at phones speak to a problem with phones, or how hard it is to be polite to a stranger? I hate small talk, and the culture we’ve created (long before smartphones) says that only appropriate subjects between strangers are the weather and sports, and frankly, I just don’t care. 

Add to this that language has always been an imperfect carrier of thought, so even if we were to speak to each other, there’s no guarantee we’d feel less alone afterwards. Similarly, you will eventually notice no one knows what you mean, and that your thoughts will die with you. And that kind of alienation is a human problem, not a technological one.

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