Cross-posted from The H Word blog.
The idea that our world and even our minds are being made radically different by new technologies, above all the internet and social media, is everywhere. On Friday in these very pages, Jonathan Freedland wrote, “I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it’s altering every corner of human life.”
He worries, particularly, that memory, “a fundamental aspect of human life”, is endangered, and our ability to process information. He quotes Leon Wieseltier who is concerned that reading today “is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world”, and that we will thereby lose the benefits of this “cognitive, mental, emotional action”. We are, he says, “happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience”.
There are shades here of Susan Greenfield and her warnings about the hideous consequences of using social media while wearing onesies, soelegantly discussed by some of my fellow Guardian Science bloggers.
Fortunately, Freedland is canny enough to add at the end, “Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press,” although he somewhat undoes this excellent point by insisting that today’s dangers are somehow much more pervasive than any earlier examples of technological change. He was, however, also wise enough to retweet a link to a post from the webcomic xkcd on The Pace of Modern Life as a “corrective”.
In a series of quotes from the 1870s to 1915, it scotches the idea that people have only started to notice and worry about speed and modernity in recent times. Apparently in 1871 the art of letter-writing was dying. It was the art of conversation itself that was threatened in 1890. “We live at too fast a rate,” it was lamented in 1892 and in 1894 our fast and superficial reading threatened our ability to think deeply and create great works.
We were doomed (again). I could add several more quotes, many going back considerably further in time, showing that concern about speed, excess of information, novelty for novelty’s sake and the loss of manners, skills or knowledge have always been with us.
Back in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson complained of the excitement about innovation and how everything always had to be done in a new way. William Hazlitt hit many of these tropes in his 1825 The Spirit of the Age, seeing it marked by a love of fashion, change, and prejudice.Matthew Arnold wrote about “This strange disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aims.”
Cities, print, the novel (especially the serialised novel), steam ships, trains, telephones, magazines and more have all been held to be worrisome and probably dangerous to the well-being and tranquility of the young and impressionable. Lock up your women and servants!
They, we, society as a whole would be overwhelmed by words, lose the ability to discern good from bad, lose connections with family, lack a sense of time and distance, fail to appreciate the meaning of labour and, with that, wave goodbye to all sense of morality and value.
Making the point beautifully, is this piece in the New York Times yesterday by Tom Standage on Social Networking in the 1600s, which notes that contemporaries expressed fears about the addictive nature of the socialising that took place there. As Standage writes,
Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”
How familiar this sounds! While there may have been those who overdid the coffee and found themselves animatedly discussing and arguing over the news of the day to the detriment of their studies and businesses, others made vital connections with people and ideas.
There is nothing so old as warnings about modernity.
Rebekah can be found on Twitter @beckyfh losing track of time, ignoring her family and failing to meet her deadlines