The Alleged Dangers of Progress

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