Oh No! Not Innovation! | On “The Culture War” by Tom Standage

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By some stroke of luck, a Facebook friend posted a link to this old WIRED piece by Tom Standage, an article that is perfectly relevant to this week’s reading. I’d read the article once before, back when I was in high school, and though Standage wrote it in response to a politician’s condemnation of video games, it’s a pretty succinct rebuttal to virtually any shallow criticism of new technologies.

It’s not hard to get caught up in the latest moral panic surrounding new digital technologies. “Cell phones are making our kids antisocial,” these modern Luddites mutter, quoting the latest research findings with a kind of reverence not unfamiliar to a member of a doomsday cult. “Video games are turning them aggressive. The Internet is making them stupid.”

These ideologies are as unwise as they are inevitable: since the dawn of civilization*, adults have irrationally protested the newfangled ideas and behaviors of the next generation. Every technological leap forward has been accompanied by the mad ravings of Good Ol’ Boys who love to hate change. The cycle is doomed to continue, forever and ever, ad infinitum and ad nauseum—after all, youths who once embraced new technologies (and happily ignored the baseless warnings of their parents) will grow older and learn to distrust the technologies developed by the following generation.

(For a quick overview of the cycle of moral panics in US society, see this infographic from Tor.com.)

In this week’s reading, Baym makes the argument that anxiety about new media in the modern era stems from a non-user’s difficulty in understanding new rules of interactivity, participation, relationship building, etc., which I think does a good job of explaining every period of moral terror in American history. Uninitiated people are unfamiliar with the new rules and behaviors associated with innovative technologies, and they connect that unfamiliarity to an emotional affect of revulsion and distrust and fear.

It’s easy for me to laugh now at old fearmongers decrying the invention of the automobile or the discovery of penicillin**, and soon, it’ll be easy to laugh at the contemporary doomsayers who grumble about how much “kids these days” use Facebook. Sure, it may be inevitable how new technologies are often viewed negatively by members of the previous generation…but it’s also inevitable that the technologies that are currently the subject of the previous generation’s ire will one day be seamlessly incorporated into mainstream society.

My only hope is that in the far-off future, when my kids are off using whatever new technology of the day has caught their interest, I won’t participate in this cycle of fear and will instead embrace the new technologies as wholeheartedly as the next generation does.

* Did anyone else laugh at Baym’s discussion of Socrates’s hatred for the alphabet? No? Just me? Cool, cool.

** No, not really.

One thought on “Oh No! Not Innovation! | On “The Culture War” by Tom Standage

  1. mbmistler

    Baym brought up an interesting point with the comic of a married couple eating breakfast, both of them not paying any attention, one reading the newspaper, one watching the television. This somewhat suggests that humans might be anti-social by nature. People, even myself, argue that kids should get off their phones, and this is the same argument others had years ago (i.e. kids should stop watching so much television), although maybe the medium does not necessarily matter, maybe we will preoccupy ourselves with anything. I would say that the use of phones might make humans more anti-social, only because kids are using them at such a young age, but I do argue with you that a lot of the basis of this argument is the dislike of change in society.

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