It is generally assumed that advances in technology lead to the improvement and progress of society. With technology we can do things earlier generations couldn’t imagine. We can travel vast distances in a short time, do incredibly complex calculations, and spread ideas around the world within seconds.
Surely these advances make us more able than our ancestors, who had a hard enough time finding food to survive.
But is this really the case? For all our forward progress, do we leave something equally valuable behind?
Consider this passage from Emerson’s Self-Reliance:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts. What a contrast between the well-clad, reading, writing, thinking American, with a watch, a pencil, and a bill of exchange in his pocket, and the naked New Zealander, whose property is a club, a spear, a mat, and an undivided twentieth of a shed to sleep under! But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, some vigor of wild virtue.
Do these same conclusions apply to modern technology? I think they do.
Consider an advance in communication, the cellular phone. We’re no longer forced to make phone calls from a set place, allowing spontaneous communication. As circumstances change, we can make calls from anywhere at any time to adjust our plans.
The benefit is clear, but closer examination reveals drawbacks. Now that we have cell phones, we don’t plan ahead anymore. Why bother when you can make a call later? So we wait until the last minute, thinking organization doesn’t matter.
The result is confusion. If there is a missed call, loss of service, or malfunction of equipment, we’re left without a plan. Even if everything works perfectly, we still engage in ‘phone tag’ that wastes more time than it would have taken to create a decent plan to begin with.
Even if we wanted to go back to the pre-cellular way of doing things, I doubt anyone remembers how.
The same could be said of the internet. We can hear a million voices, but have no way of knowing which ones are worth listening to. Millions of new articles are published every day, so we neglect the literary masterpieces passed down to us.
I’m not saying that technology is bad or that society is declining. But we’d be intelligent to abandon our modern vanity. We’re aren’t any smarter than our ancestors. We’re actually dumber in many ways. It’s time to stop thinking of technology as a cure-all and recognize it as a double-edged sword.