Is Modern Technology Bad for Us?

Closeup of a woman's hands holding a smartphone.
Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

I’ve been hearing it my whole life, television rots your brain. Video games are worse. And now that we have screens, we’re doomed. Thanks to these technologies, people no longer have attention spans. People are lazy. The ability to memorize is gone. Actually, all learning and thinking is in danger. At least that’s what they say.

I’m inclined to disagree with that sentiment. I know it’s not scientific, but kids today seem fine to me. Or at least as fine as kids have ever been. All the handwringing is overblown. Part of how I can tell it’s overblown is the fact that every new technology in the history of the world has brought about the same handwringing.

There was an article in Aeon today that takes the reader through a lot of that history. It tells of an ancient Egyptian myth. The god Theuth tells the king of the gods, Thamus, about his new invention, writing. Theuth is proud of his achievement, but Thamus is worried. He says that writing will ruin memory, turn it into mere reminding. He also says that people will read without instruction which will cause the appearance of wisdom instead of real wisdom.

Similar complaints were made in ancient Greece, 12th century China, and 18th century Europe. Writing, the printing press, novels, and similar things would ruin their users by making them lazy with no attention to detail or attention span. There was a mini panic when the index was first invented. Instead of reading a whole text, people would skip to the parts they were interested in. Daily newspapers were thought to corrupt the mind. The list goes on and on.

All of the current complaints about smartphones sound exactly the same to me. It’s just luddites doing what luddites do. What are the odds that all of the previous warnings have been wrong, but this time they’re right? I know it’s not impossible, but it appears highly unlikely.

There have been plenty of achievements since the invention of video games and smartphones. We’ve found the Higgs boson. We’ve created super-advanced AI. There’s no shortage of great artists, writers, and musicians. People are still progressing like they’ve always done.

It would be nice if people would just calm down. Personally, I quite like having the sum total of human knowledge in my pocket. It’s not surprisingly useful. It’s just plain useful. Plus, it’s entertaining. Who doesn’t want that?

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