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May 26, 2024
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Technology is probably changing us for the worse—or so we always think

MIT Technology Review is celebrating our 125th anniversary with an online series that draws lessons for the future from our past coverage of technology. 

Do we use technology, or does it use us? Do our gadgets improve our lives or just make us weak, lazy, and dumb? These are old questions—maybe older than you think. You’re probably familiar with the way alarmed grown-ups through the decades have assailed the mind-rotting potential of search engines, video games, television, and radio—but those are just the recent examples.

Early in the last century, pundits argued that the telephone severed the need for personal contact and would lead to social isolation. In the 19th century some warned that the bicycle would rob women of their femininity and result in a haggard look known as “bicycle face.” Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein was a warning against using technology to play God, and how it might blur the lines between what’s human and what isn’t.

Or to go back even further: in Plato’s Phaedrus, from around 370 BCE, Socrates suggests that writing could be a detriment to human memory—the argument being, if you’ve written it down, you no longer needed to remember it.

We’ve always greeted new technologies with a mixture of fascination and fear,  says Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who focuses on the intersection of technology and American politics. “People think: ‘Wow, this is going to change everything affirmatively, positively,’” she says. “And at the same time: ‘It’s scary—this is going to corrupt us or change us in some negative way.’”

And then something interesting happens: “We get used to it,” she says. “The novelty wears off and the new thing becomes a habit.” 

A curious fact

Here at MIT Technology Review, writers have grappled with the effects, real or imagined, of tech on the human mind for nearly a hundred years. In our March 1931 issue, in his essay “Machine-Made Minds,” author John Bakeless wrote that it was time to ask “how far the machine’s control over us is a danger calling for vigorous resistance; and how far it is a good thing, to which we may willingly yield.” 

The advances that alarmed him might seem, to us, laughably low-tech: radio transmitters, antennas, or even rotary printing presses.

But Bakeless, who’d published books on Lewis and Clark and other early American explorers, wanted to know not just what the machine age was doing to society but what it was doing to individual people. “It is a curious fact,” he wrote, “that the writers who have dealt with the social, economic, and political effects of the machine have neglected the most important effect of all—its profound influence on the human mind.”

In particular, he was worried about how technology was being used by the media to control what people thought and talked about. 

“Consider the mental equipment of the average modern man,” he wrote. “Most of the raw material of his thought enters his mind by way of a machine of some kind … the Twentieth Century journalist can collect, print, and distribute his news with a speed and completeness wholly due to a score or more of intricate machines … For the first time, thanks to machinery, such a thing as a world-wide public opinion is becoming possible.”

Bakeless didn’t see this as an especially positive development. “Machines are so expensive that the machine-made press is necessarily controlled by a few very wealthy men, who with the very best intentions in the world are still subject to human limitation and the prejudices of their kind … Today the man or the government that controls two machines—wireless and cable—can control the ideas and passions of a continent.”

Keep away

Fifty years later, the debate had shifted more in the direction of silicon chips. In our October 1980 issue, engineering professor Thomas B. Sheridan, in “Computer Control and Human Alienation,” asked: “How can we ensure that the future computerized society will offer humanity and dignity?” A few years later, in our August/September 1987 issue, writer David Lyon felt he had the answer—we couldn’t, and wouldn’t. In “Hey You! Make Way for My Technology,” he wrote that gadgets like the telephone answering machine and the boom box merely kept other pesky humans at a safe distance: “As machines multiply our capacity to perform useful tasks, they boost our aptitude for thoughtless and self-centered action. Civilized behavior is predicated on the principle of one human being interacting with another, not a human being interacting with a mechanical or electronic extension of another person.”

By this century the subject had been taken up by a pair of celebrities, novelist Jonathan Franzen and Talking Heads lead vocalist David Byrne. In our September/October 2008 issue, Franzen suggested that cell phones had turned us into performance artists. 

In “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” he wrote: “When I’m buying those socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts ‘I love you!’ into her little phone, I am powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted. Yes, a lot of domestic things get shouted in public which really aren’t intended for public consumption; yes, people get carried away. But the phrase ‘I love you’ is too important and loaded, and its use as a sign-off too self-conscious, for me to believe I’m being made to hear it accidentally.”

In “Eliminating the Human,” from our September/October 2017 issue, Byrne observed that advances in the digital economy served largely to free us from dealing with other people. You could now “keep in touch” with friends without ever seeing them; buy books without interacting with a store clerk; take an online course without ever meeting the teacher or having any awareness of the other students.

“For us as a society, less contact and interaction—real interaction—would seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more envy and antagonism,” Byrne wrote. “As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles … When interaction becomes a strange and unfamiliar thing, then we will have changed who and what we are as a species.”

Modern woes

It hasn’t stopped. Just last year our own Will Douglas Heaven’s feature on ChatGPT debunked the idea that the AI revolution will destroy children’s ability to develop critical-thinking skills.

As O’Mara puts it: “Do all of the fears of these moral panics come to pass? No. Does change come to pass? Yes.” The way we come to grips with new technologies hasn’t fundamentally changed, she says, but what has changed is—there’s more of it to deal with. “It’s more of the same,” she says. “But it’s more. Digital technologies have allowed things to scale up into a runaway train of sorts that the 19th century never had to contend with.”

Maybe the problem isn’t technology at all, maybe it’s us. Based on what you might read in 19th-century novels, people haven’t changed much since the early days of the industrial age. In any Dostoyevsky novel you can find people who yearn to be seen as different or special, who take affront at any threat to their carefully curated public persona, who feel depressed and misunderstood and isolated, who are susceptible to mob mentality.

“The biology of the human brain hasn’t changed in the last 250 years,” O’Mara says. “Same neurons, still the same arrangement. But it’s been presented with all these new inputs … I feel like I live with information overload all the time. I think we all observe it in our own lives, how our attention spans just go sideways. But that doesn’t mean my brain has changed at all. We’re just getting used to consuming information in a different way.”

And if you find technology to be intrusive and unavoidable now, it might be useful to note that Bakeless felt no differently in 1931. Even then, long before anyone had heard of smartphone or the internet, he felt that technology had become so intrinsic to daily life that it was like a tyrant: “Even as a despot, the machine is benevolent; and it is after all our stupidity that permits inanimate iron to be a despot at all.”

If we are to ever create the ideal human society, he concluded—one with sufficient time for music, art, philosophy, scientific inquiry (“the gorgeous playthings of the mind,” as he put it)—it was unlikely we’d get it done without the aid of machines. It was too late, we’d already grown too accustomed to the new toys. We just needed to find a way to make sure that the machines served us instead of the other way around. “If we are to build a great civilization in America, if we are to win leisure for cultivating the choice things of mind and spirit, we must put the machine in its place,” he wrote.

Okay, but—how, exactly? Ninety-three years later and we’re still trying to figure that part out.

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