Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fearful Communications Innovations

by Richard Crews
The Economist (5/13 "highlights") has a fascinating article about fearful innovations in communications.

Their point is a simple one (simple in principle although devilishly hard to assess or apply): "Communications innovations should be empowering rather than distracting or misleading."

The most charming part of the article is the list of examples of communications technophobia from history.

(1) "Socrates’s bugbear was the spread of the biggest-ever innovation in communications--writing. He feared that relying on written texts, rather than the oral tradition, would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls.… They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

(2) Enos Hitchcock voiced a widespread concern about the latest publishing fad in 1790. “The free access which many young people now have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth.” (There was a related worry that sofas, introduced at the same time, encouraged young people to drift off into fantasy worlds.)

(3) Cinema [moving picture shows] was denounced as “an evil pure and simple” in 1910.

(4) Comic books were said to lead children into delinquency in 1954.

(5) Rock’n’roll was accused of turning the young into “devil worshippers” in 1956.

(6) Hillary Clinton attacked video games for “stealing the innocence of our children” in 2005.

(7) They continue: "Mr Obama is, at least, bang up to date with his reference to the iPad,* which now joins the illustrious list of technologies to have been denounced by politicians, and with his grumbling about the crazy theories circulated by the combination of blogs and talk radio. But such Luddism is particularly curious in Mr Obama’s case, given that--

(a) he is surgically attached to his BlackBerry,

(b) his presidential campaign made exemplary use of the Internet, and

(c) he has used YouTube to great effect to deliver his message directly to viewers, circumventing the mainstream media in the process."


* “WITH iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations--none of which I know how to work--information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.” Obama in a speech to students at Hampton University on May 9th.