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This echoes work I’ve done on technological fear cycles, a process that typically involves initial resistance, gradual adaptation, and eventual assimilation of new technologies and media. It’s been true for the telegraph, the telephone, the camera, and various genres of books, music, movies, dance, television, and video games. With the Net and related digital technologies, we’re still going through the growing pains associated with the move from initial resistance to adaptation. It’s just that the cycle is happening much faster than it did for previous technologies.
Consider the initial backlash to Gmail, which prompted immediate calls for regulation—even bans—when the service debuted, as critics feared for their privacy. But the public quickly adjusted, and over 425 million people now view Gmail as an indispensable resource. We’re going through similar cycle right now with social networking services, ambient computing, wearable technologies such as Google Glass, and the so-called “Internet of Things” (“smart homes,” “smart cars,” and other networked intelligent devices). “Understanding how to use these new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation,” Thompson says. We shouldn’t be blind to the challenges raised by these new technologies, but we also shouldn’t stop experimenting with them and figuring out how to assimilate them into our lives wisely.
Many of today’s pessimistic fears, Thompson adds, are premised on artificial baselines or outright myths. We were not collectively better informed, better educated, and more articulate in the past, as some of today’s critics seemingly imply. And as Thompson notes, the supposed “glorious age of letter writing” is largely a myth. “The reality doesn’t match our fond nostalgia for it.”
Meanwhile, all the public writing we’re doing today is changing our cognitive behavior in positive ways. It helps us clarify our thinking to work out ideas and arguments in public. Having an audience “forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.” It also improves your memory and brings together diverse and dispersed individuals who have shared concerns or who are looking to solve complex problems.
Why Doomsaying Dominates
If coping mechanisms have always developed to alleviate the apocalyptics’ worst fears, why do those pessimistic perspectives always seem to get so much more attention? Thompson pinpoints the culprits: “dystopian predictions are easy to generate” and “doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today’s technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you’re a gimlet-eyed critic who isn’t hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciate for the past and who stands above the triviality of today’s life.”
But this “reflexively dystopian view is just a misguided as giddy boosterism of Silicon Valley. Its nostalgia is false; it pretends these cultural prophecies of doom are somehow new and haven’t occurred with metronomic regularity, and in nearly identical form, for centuries. And it ignores the many brilliant new ways we’ve harnessed new technologies, from the delightful and everyday...to the rare and august,” he says.
Finally, there’s the rank elitism of the pessimistic narrative. Before digital tools empowered the masses and gave them more of a voice, it was much harder to observe the public’s diverse interests. Consequently, “it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn’t exist; that the nation was ‘united’ around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities.” The rise of the Net shattered this “self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things” and opened our eyes to the rainbow of human interests and tastes out there. “When you gaze with wild surmise upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion.” And the pessimists aren’t comfortable with what they see.
Thompson strikes a sensible balance on many other thorny debates, covering topics ranging from reputation management to regime change and from digital privacy to harassing speech. The result is a sort of pragmatic optimism. Following the lead set by such earlier thinkers as F.A. Hayek, Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, Virginia Postrel, and Matt Ridley, Thompson shows us why there are good reasons for us to be unapologetically bullish about the future and the prospects for humanity’s adaptation to it. At the same time, he refuse to be naïve or blasé about the occasionally gut-wrenching and highly disruptive challenges associated with technological change. Thompson proves it possible to think about ways to mitigate those downsides without adopting the paranoid and Luddite tones that are common among the techno-apocalyptic crew.
Pragmatic optimists will always find ourselves in a defensive crouch, constantly forced to respond to the lugubrious lamentations of those shouting at the clouds—even the digital ones—and insisting that humanity is doomed to suffer under technology’s dreaded yoke. Clive Thompson shows that a deep breath and little patience are in order. We’ll pull through. We always have.
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