These kids today, I swear!
I am constantly reminded that technological advancements are mostly good, or at least benign. After all, old farts have predicted the downfall of young people after the appearance of new every new information technology (schoolroom slates, the printing press, radio, television, the Innerwebs, etc. etc.), since time immemorial. In a recent example, we have a repost of “The Credible Hulk’s” online post, from “a principal’s publication, 1815”, which states the following:
Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?
The original photo is further helpfully captioned by “lerios,” no doubt themselves a great Internet “influencer,” as follows:
Proof that someone has bitched and will bitch about young peoples’ technology throughout all of time and space.
Not so fast. A little research shows that this quote, along with several similar ones, did not come from 1815, nor even 1915. They were made up as a rhetorical device in 1978, and have been unhelpfully propagated since then until this very day, in presentations about educational technology. Like the mystic Rasputin, or Ukraine’s meddling in US electoral politics, these quotes have grown indestructible legs.
In logical terms, we can express the original argument’s conclusion as follows: The Internet is no different from any prior information technology advance. Its premises include the following:
- Historical statements document predictions of the downfall of youth after all prior technological advances.
- Older generations have always made these predictions.
- (implicit) Even if negative outcomes did ensue from prior information tech advances, they are not distinguishable from other such advances in terms of scale.
We have already cast reasonable doubt on at least part of premises (1) and (2) above, although there may still be historical elements of truth to them. But my main point in this essay is the following: The fact that documented misinformation like this keeps being propagated is, in itself, evidence against premise (3).
A few people will agree with some downsides that I see arising from prior information tech advances. One such downside is capitalist advertising in print and electronic media, which helps drive economic growth and material avarice, in turn advancing the destruction of the biosphere. To head off counterarguments, I am also fully aware that some people disagree that the biosphere is really being damaged, or that even if it is, the benefits of capitalism far outweigh the downsides, invalidating my argument. I’ll leave that argument for another essay.
Is the Internet itself, accessible instantly via electronic interface, really “no different” from all prior information and communication advancements?
Come along now on my exciting new series, “The Internet Made Me What I Am Today,” in which we’ll explore some examples of a few worrisome downsides. The upsides are well documented elsewhere.
In today’s installment, let’s explore the concept of Horoscopes. OK boomers, remember when we learned that Nancy Reagan had consulted an Astrologer to inform Ronnie’s White House policies? Remember how we LOLed and LOLed and LOLed over that one?!
This recent article from the Washington Post on a recent surge in Astrology popularity notes that “Because the apps are social and often free, they’re like the gateway drug to the woo.” With uncritical thinking skills like these on the wax, what hope is there that our citizenry can think critically about propaganda, or distinguish real from fake “fake news”?
My thesis is that current Internet technology accelerates lies and “woo” exponentially faster than any prior technologies. In other words, we are now faced with a new and massive difference in SCALE. It should worry anyone who thinks that an informed democracy is important.
All prior information tech has accelerated outflow rate and scale too, but we’re now faced with a new speed demon that won’t be contained. It’s “unlike anything seen before” to quote a contemporary American president, who has taken to the Twitterverse like no president seen before.
The old saw that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (maybe Mark Twain?), is still true today. But it’s truer today than ever before. Here’s my nomination to update the quote:
“A lie can travel around the world a millionfold before the truth can read the front page.”
I expect to hear this rejoinder: “All the more reason for parents and teachers to guide young people in appropriate use of the Internet, and for everyone to be taught critical thinking.” That is certainly true. And thank you for doing that!
But if you think those precautions will land this new speed demon back into its cage, you’ve got another think coming. Take a look around at the world outside our own bubble.