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Herbert London: The Other Side of Technology

While the wizards of new technology wax lyrically about the wonders of technological development, there is another side, one often overlooked in the avalanche of new products. Clearly computers have changed our lives, opened new horizons of learning and have abbreviated research efforts, but there are hidden societal costs that are unnoticed or intentionally ignored.

Computer games, for example, have improved finger dexterity, but they have reduced the capacity for youthful imagination. Choices are provided for the user, but they are limited to what the programmer has provided.

Calligraphy is a dead discipline, a method of writing as “dead” as Latin. The problem, of course, is if the keyboard is unavailable and a writing pad is all one has, legibility isn’t possible.

Similarly, basic arithmetic is a casualty of the calculator. At a 7-Eleven market, I gave the check-out clerk $20.04 for a bill of $7.54. She looked at me perplexed and returned the .o4 cents. The multiplication table is as passé as hula hoops. The problem one faces, however, is what happens if you press the wrong button on your computer and 8x4 isn’t 32, but 28? Is it any wonder math proficiency is in decline?

In the nineteenth century almost every literate American could write well as letters from Civil War veterans demonstrated. Now, however, even recently minted PhDs have difficulty composing a simple sentence. There are a host of reasons for this condition, but as I see it, technology plays a part. Twitter users, to cite one example, are restricted to 140 characters. Texting encourages short-hand applications.

Special effects in film production, invariably a function of computer generated verisimilitude, have created a generation capable of visual arabesques, but incapable of telling a story. Plot lines in films are generally sophomoric for obvious reasons.

Web site designers take great pride in the visual appearance of their products. And on many sites the bells and whistles are impressive. Recently I asked one of these designers about the content he displays and he said “that isn’t my business.” Alas, it isn’t. Nor do many worry about the content. Marshall McLuhan didn’t have it quite right in my judgment. The medium isn’t the message; the medium sometimes destroys the message or makes it irrelevant.

Artist Arthur Ganson once said, “The problem is when technology has seduced you away from thinking about things as deeply as you should.” A desire for the “new” drives the entrepreneurial world without the slightest consideration of long term societal effects and the atrophy of skills we once had.

The library as a storage house for books is in peril. It has been replaced by a storehouse in cyberspace. Yet the value of a library in promoting random selection is overlooked. If one walked through the stacks of the now antediluvian library, you might come across a book placed next to the one you seek. A treasure of ideas was placed before you as a smorgasbord. In the computer based library, you must be specific; randomness is shunned.

Now I am not a Luddite. I use a computer and value the extraordinary things it can do. What I am reminded of daily are the things it cannot do and the cognitive skills that it has diminished. Technology is not zero sum, it exists in a complex web of traditions and prior knowledge.

Socrates argued that the written word would devastate oral communication. Al Jolson said the microphone would discourage real singing. Farmer Jones contended the tractor would harm a real understanding of crop development. The list goes on. In every instance, we are bemused by the resistance to progress, but if you think hard, you realize each detractor had a point. Technology giveth and taketh away. Most often it makes sense, but at times it makes sense to step back and ask what we lose with the latest technological breakthrough.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries atwww.londoncenter.org


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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