The Alleged Dangers of Progress

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The
phenomenon of running down new technology is recurring, so you might
think why bother with it again. But as with many other matters,
when they recur, it is good to pay them renewed heed.

I
noticed in a recent issue of Newsweek Magazine that some
editor
decided to report
on a conference where there was much trepidation
about bloggers. It was a group of mainstream journalists showing
their concern that they may be losing their audience, now that blogging
has become big throughout the World Wide Web.

But
instead of saying outright, “We are worried about our jobs,” the
journalists whose concerns were reported couched their beef in terms
of politics and social justice. The problem you see is, some of
them cried: most bloggers are white and male. So, clearly, the forum
is biased in the most horrible way: it discriminates against minorities.
Or perhaps not.

I
don’t know if this complaint has any merit to it—the piece
in Newsweek gave no solid evidence. Moreover it didn’t
mention at all what significance there could be to the absence of
minorities from the blog world. Maybe members of these minorities
do not want to be on the web much, just as I do not want to mess
with digital cameras, even though it is the rage (Circuit City people
tell me they sell 90 digital to one old-fashioned camera).

More
importantly, nothing in the Newsweek piece mentioned the
incredibly wide range of viewpoints in the blogging community (to
which I, by the way, do not generally belong other than to check
some out when I am asked to). From what I am aware of, there appears
to be great diversity among bloggers of just the kind that should
matter to people, namely, diverse ethical, religious, political,
economic, and related perspectives.

Why
care about the rest? Why is it so important to track whether women,
blacks, those of Italian or Hungarian background choose to blog?
What should matter, if anything, is whether people with different
things to say take advantage of the medium.

All
the fuss about blogging isn’t everything that’s being done to disparage
liberating technology. The March 20th issue of The New York
Times Magazine published a missive, “Bad
Connections,
” by Christine Rosen—a fellow at the Ethics
and Public Policy Center in Washington—complaining that cell
phones and such “have put us out of touch with the manners and mores
of public life.”

All
in all, this lament, coming as it must from someone who finds individualism
naughty and collectivism nice, is in line with the know-nothing
tradition of anti-technology. Her institution “affirms the
political relevance of the great Western ethical imperative,” which,
it turns out, includes your duty not to audibly communicate with
people via a hand-held device.

Ms.
Rosen in fact begins her belly-aching by recalling the invention
of the mirror in the 16th Century and noting how it has spawned
egotism and vanity (forgetting that it also helps dentistry, as
an example, as well as safe driving).

And
that is just the point: most inventions can be used well or badly.
There is no guarantee that no one will abuse something that was
invented to be helpful. In the case of cell phones and computers
there are innumerable ways they can be made to serve perfectly good
ends as well as lousy ones—just consider how emailing and
instant messaging can keep families in far better touch than having
to write letters and wait for the mail to deliver them and how smut
has spread by it all, as well. I noticed some of this with my own
children who were quite adept, early in their lives, at typing and
even spelling, not to mention the right use of words, because they
began using email and IM when quite young.

Ms.
Rosen, of course—coming as she does from a mainstream ethics
center that is guided by the collectivist concerns that academic
ethics has been promulgating for centuries—doesn’t like that
being called on one’s mobile phone in public may make a person feel
a bit self-important. My-my, that is just intolerable. (Never mind
that much of the psychological and pedagogical profession is concerned
with instilling greater self-esteem in young people, encouraging
them all to be feeling better about themselves.)

Ms.
Rosen concludes that we should be debating new technologies in the
same manner that we debate the social effects of abortion and Social
Security, weighing the claims of individual freedom against “other
goods.” Actually, the beauty of technologies produced and distributed
in the marketplace is precisely that they are not subjected to political
debate; those who want them can have them, and those who do not
can do without. There have been societies that subject all
economic decisions to political ratification, but they are not societies
anyone wants to live in excepting those few at the top who enjoy
exercise power over others.

In
any case, we should realize that good and evil are not embedded
in objects themselves. It all depends on how we use them. Cell phones
are popular because they are useful for people in their daily lives.
That seems like a good enough reason to recommend them.

I
say to technological innovation, bring it all on! We will do fine
sorting out the good and bad uses of it without the churlishness
of the likes of the people Newsweek chose to report on or
Christine Rosen’s naysaying. Just because the social ways
and methods of olden times may become somewhat moot, it doesn’t
follow that new ways and methods of even greater merit will not
be forthcoming.

April
6, 2005

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] is
R. C. Hoiles Professor of Free Enterprise & Business Ethics at the
Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, CA.
A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University,
he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Objectivity:
Recovering Determinate Reality in Philosophy, Science, and Everyday
Life
.

Tibor
Machan Archives

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