Arguments by Nostalgia

I’m broadly sympathetic to arguments questioning technology in modern society. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked about our over-reliance on technology and the effect it has on our social and cognitive development.

I recently reread Shenk’s book The End of Patience for class and was struck by how much of it is just proper common sense. The list of principles at seem jaw-droppingly obvious to me: technologies aren’t neutral, the Internet is not utopian, government has an important role to play on the electronic frontier, etc.

Maybe I find this stuff so obvious because I’ve been working and studying as an information professional for so long. But I remember reading similar points during the heyday of the internet boom and nodding my head then just as much as I do now.

So one part of me wants to encourage Shenk and others to keep their critiques of the electronic frontier coming, but another part is annoyed by the implicit arguments made about the amount of information we have today versus what we had in the past.

So it goes with technology. As we speed it up, we also speed up our expectations. As long as you are psychologically running in the technology rat race, you will never, ever be winning that race - you will always be losing it. And as long as the pace of change is as blistering as it is today, many of us are stuck with the feeling of falling behind even as we stand still. (from the End of Patience, p. 41)

A key argument here is that technology is speeding things up more than it did in the past. But the missing question is what is getting sped up. Is it the presentation of information to us, is it our access to information, is it our human perceptions?

In order to answer that question we need to rely on argument by nostalgia. We need to believe that life was slower, gentler, and much more pleasant at some time in the past. But this knowledge about the past is, I believe, beyond our capabilities. Too much of the actual experience of the past has disappeared for us to know whether living in 1850 would feel very different than living today.

Sure there are a lot of surface differences between then and now. We can travel much faster than before, know more about the world faster, and communicate with other people faster. But the leap from those changes to psychological changes about patience seems suspect to me.

Surfing the web today and finding an endless series of diversions seems to me akin to walking into a library in 1900 and feeling that there was never going to be enough time to read all the books I’d like to. Those with any modest realization of the human condition have always known that the boundaries of the individual are too small to encompass the wonders of the world. We’ve always known we’re limited. It’s just a matter of how you respond to that fact. Do you react with patience or anxiety?