An Intellectual History of Our Troubles with Technology

We often evaluate new technologies based on old standards. How should we update our evaluative tools for the digital age?

Our troubles with technology have mythical origins. In the Phaedrus, Plato recounts the tale of the Egyptian god Theuth, who once tried to sell the invention of writing to Thamus, the king of the gods:

“O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”

 “A potion for memory” is among the earliest attempts by an engineer to interpret his own invention. But no sooner had Theuth made his pitch than his king countered. Writing, he replied, would increase forgetfulness rather than memory. Students will use it as a substitute for real thinking and thus “they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so”. The written word, Thamus concludes, is just a degenerate version of the spoken one.

Writing is one of our earliest “technologies”, derived from the Greek technais meaning art or craft. And the two deities’ discussion, perplexing in its palpable contradictions, provides us with two insights into our troubles interpreting technology. The first is that inventors tend to be bad prognosticators. Theuth may have a mature understanding of the inner workings of his invention, but when it comes to its societal effects, he speaks with the exuberance of an inexperienced youth. Plato eloquently captures the fallibility of human predictions in the context of their own creations: what you give is not always what you get. 

The second lesson lies in Thamus’ reply. In 1969, the post-structuralist thinker Jacques Derrida popularized the king’s response as symptomatic of a general disease germane to Western philosophy. For the French philosopher, the king’s derision of writing was indicative of a metaphysical assumption that positioned speech as closer to the “truth” (i.e. one’s inner thoughts) than writing. Taken as Plato’s own view, this preferential treatment of speech, Derrida believed, revealed a false assumption that undergirded much of Western philosophical approaches to language and science. But according to the classist Alexander Nehamas, there is another reading, one that reveals not a metaphysical, but technological truth.

There is reason to doubt, Nehamas argued, that Plato would wholeheartedly adopt Thamus’ view, given that the Greek philosopher’s own contributions are in writing, and whose appreciation for paradoxes belies a more nuanced take. He claims instead that we should read Plato’s discussion of writing as a particular instance of a general debate on the value of new technologies. On this view, the debate over the value of writing offers a sociological insight into the fallacy of human interpretation. Plato’s character Socrates assumes that just because writing cannot “be responded to”, that it must be inferior to speech, a “living and breathing discourse”. This is, on one view, a strike against writing. But writing, as we know, can do many things that speech cannot — it can travel vast distances without mutating, it can undergo careful refinement and revision, and it can be preserved for close to eternity. On the technological reading, the passage takes on a practical meaning applicable to our contemporary time: when it comes to new technologies, we often make an unfair comparison. We use old standards to evaluate new things, and in doing so, we forget to evaluate things on their own terms.

To take a more modern example, in his book Future Politics, Jamie Susskind wrote of a similar encounter between the physicist Michael Faraday and the British statesman William Gladstone in the 1850s. While explaining his pathbreaking work on electricity to the younger statesman in a Victorian re-enactment of the Phaedrus, Faraday found that Gladstone was utterly unconvinced. “But what use is it?” he asked impatiently. The politician could not yet grasp the limitless possibilities that electricity would have in store; in other words, his evaluative framework was too limited to perceive the value of the technology before him. In a memorable line, Faraday responds in the register appropriate to the statesman’s myopic view: “Why sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it”.

To evaluate new technologies based on the old, then, is not to adopt the Platonic view, but to betray it. This is the Thamus trap, one that rests on an empirical error. As David Foster Wallace observed in his 2005 commencement speech in Kenyon College, “everything in my immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of my universe”. Humans, in other words, experience the world with a self-centric bias — it is our default setting. Everything that happens in the world, happens to us. In a similar fashion, when a disruptive technology threatens to change our way of life, our natural instinct is to compare it with that older version intimate to our own experience. But here we make a category mistake. Technologies, especially those that disruptive an industry, tend to differ from their predecessors not just in degree, but in kind; they cannot, in other words, be evaluated as one would a new update on the iPhone.

Writing in Japan in 1933, the novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki lamented the “loss of shadows” wrought by an increasingly modernized, electricity-filled Tokyo. That electricity had eliminated the aesthetic ambience of candlelight was not a mistaken observation. But after the economic miracle of the postwar era (many of which thanks to electric powered machinery), Tanizaki’s assessment seems unfair. When we judge new technologies only by the strengths of what came before, it is no surprise that they come up short. In the process, a comparison which is really a matter of apples to oranges gets turned into a matter of degree.

From the era of mass media to our digital age, the Thamus trap — the tendency to find solace in an older medium and way of thinking — resurface in various debates. In 1927, Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a 21-year-old engineer had developed a remarkable piece of machinery that could translate images into radio waves and then back into a picture. Surprisingly, the second image he ever translated successfully was a dollar sign, a witty reaction to a pesky investor who had repeatedly asked him: “When are we going to see some dollars in this thing, Farnsworth?”

The dollars came. By the 1950s, 87% of American households had Farnsworth’s new invention installed in the center of their living rooms; it was an object that garnered both intense fascination and moral unease. Remaining true to its function, early investors named it after the Greek word for “distance” tèle and the Latin word for “sight” visio. Soon, the “television” threatened to endanger the established market of literature and the news, sparking a national debate about its moral and political implications. “What is particularly ironic” Nehamas observed in 1995, “is that almost every argument Plato gave in the Phaedrus in favor of speech and against writing is now given in favor of writing and against television.”

Indeed, for many critics, television was a degenerate version of writing. In his diatribe Four Arguments Against the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander construed the medium as aesthetically inferior to its antecedent. He claimed that an imagery produced by writing “resided totally in [people’s] imagination” and so “they had the richness that fantasy can create”. “On television, the fantasy is destroyed, and the perspective flattened”. Another criticism assumed the familiar Platonic case against poetry, by emphasizing the medium’s allegiance to passion over reason. “Television”, wrote the mass media critic Neil Postman, “offers viewers a variety of subject-matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.” Then there was a political case for its elimination. According to Wayne Booth, the rise of television would naturally engender a retreat away from political life. “Unless we change their characteristic forms”, he wrote, “the new media will surely corrupt whatever global village they create; you cannot build a world community out of misshapen souls.”

In hindsight, the flurry of television criticism feels rather awkward and skewed. The reason is that we now have a more complex picture of the medium’s merits and limits independent of its predecessor. Television did have sensationalizing qualities, and it was not always best suited to conveying a story’s nuances, but it also had many salutary effects. First, the assumption that emotional gratification precludes artistic value seems rather foreign today. One need only watch a series on HBO or a Quentin Tarantino film to see that sexual or violent imagery, once regarded as anathema to aesthetic virtues, has found its place in the respectable halls of visual art. Second, television had unexpected democratic benefits. By conveying information through imagery rather than words, television was a much more inclusive medium than the newspaper. In 2007, political scientist Markus Prior demonstrated with striking empirical precision that television had made American politics more equitable by increasing political knowledge and turnout among the illiterate and the less educated. “Because the more educated were not noticeably affected [by television]”, Prior argued, television “was a profound political equalizer”. Television did not elevate the quality of political discussion, but simply being the medium that it was, it had democratized it.

Evidently, when we use a previous medium — in this case, writing — as our only point of reference, we miss out on crucial details. Compared to writing, television is too hastily cast as more shallow, sensational, and unreflective. Meanwhile, television’s artistic and democratic merits were not so easily discernable from a comparative exercise. Noticing these alternative effects often requires considerable time and observation: it is much easier to conceive of new technologies on their own terms once they have had time to exhibit their own unique qualities. In this way, there seems to be an inevitable transitory phase, one characterized by the use of old tools in a changing world. Before revolutionizing the industry of transportation, the car was known as a “horseless carriage”. The transition to the word “automobile” signaled a paradigm shift, one in which the public began to accept the technology as different enough from its predecessor to warrant its own category. This shift is not inevitable, however. Sometimes, even when a technology has existed far past its earlier iteration, we continue to stick to old paradigms — old habits die hard.

The Internet is this century’s new medium of communication, sharing many of the characteristics of earlier disruptions like television and writing. And like our Egyptian and Victorian predecessors, the ways in which we judged the Internet fell into familiar patterns.

The early aughts was the transitory phase. During a speech on a Chinese trade bill, Bill Clinton famously described the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt to regulate the Internet as trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall”. Implicit in Clinton’s wry remark was an assumption, shared by many at the time, that digital technologies would bolster democracies and topple authoritarian regimes. This idea was rooted in a comparative exercise. In the broadcast era, audiences were relatively powerless, and content choices were few and far between. The average American citizen enjoyed only 6-8 channels on their television, and the power differential between newscaster and audience member was unsettling to egalitarian sensibilities. Although television was widely established by the late twentieth century as crucial to a well-functioning democracy, many theorists such as the journalist Walter Lippmann had long warned of the risks inherent to such a top-down, hierarchical communications structure.

The Internet promised to put an end to these imbalances. Early optimists of digital media hence fixated on a particular set of democratic values derived from the flaws of the older medium. The new digital order was to be, upon comparison, more informative, inclusive, and empowering for the average citizen. Established democratic theories at the time confirmed this bias. In the 1970s, Carole Pateman, in her seminal work Participation and Democratic Theory, argued that hierarchical institutions like the corporation inhibited “the social and political capacities of each individual”. In order for societies to truly respect the demands of democratic citizens, she argued, institutions — be it the workplace, the household, or the media — needed to undergo a “democratization” that matched the ideals of democratic societies. By the turn of the millennium, the public was primed to assume that democratizing the media would democratize society in turn. The sentiment was best captured by journalism professor Jay Rosen in 2006, who claimed that power would now be transferred back to “the people formerly known as the audience”.

The early optimism of the digital era has now faded. Electoral victories by right-wing populists in the West and the emergence of “digital autocracies” in the East have cast serious doubt on our previous evaluative tools. The inventors, the Theuths of Silicon Valley, who once proselytized the dream of a “global village” are now seen as naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. The theorists, the Thamus’, who emphasized the digital media’s democratic capabilities have now been largely silenced. The “horseless carriage” phase of the Internet is drawing to a close, but what will replace it?

To rethink our current paradigm, we must treat digital technologies as different in kindfrom the mediums they threaten to replace. Shoshana Zuboff, in her book Surveillance Capitalism, takes up a version of this exercise. She demonstrates that digital technologies cannot be understood simply as the next stage of economic production. Access to personal data and new predictive algorithms have interacted with capitalistic incentives in perverse ways, fundamentally distorting the consumer relationship into one driven by breaches of privacy and subtle behavioral engineering. How might a similar exercise be attempted in the political space? In order to rethink the new technology’s relationship to politics, we must treat digital mediums separately from the legacy of the news. One way to do this is to see digital mediums not only as a provider of information for us, but as a mediator of relationships between us. On this picture, the digital media is not a news delivery service but a marriage counselor for our civic bonds.

Earlier democratic theorists tend to overlook the relational aspect of the media. The Internet was a boon for information, participation, and communicative power — this much is true. But these “democratic” values tend to treat the public as a collective entity, juxtaposed to a perceived “elite” or “government”. We are told that the digital revolution will bring all of us, “the people”, more power at the expense of older elites. This framework of a single public made sense in an era where the mediums of communication separated a class of elites (the publishers and broadcasters) from audiences. But one need only look at the rise of populism and online tribalism to see that such a collective analysis makes little sense today. Relational dynamics among the collective have come to take up a much greater portion of democratic politics. On the web, we are not a single public, but an amalgam of overlapping groups confronted with our differences in a system that ultimately demands us to learn and govern together.

If digital technologies are not just a communicative medium, but a relational one, then different questions come to the fore. Beneath the veneer of collective empowerment lies many interpersonal problems pertaining to equality and mutual respect. First, political equality, the right for citizens to have an equal say in politics, has become especially challenging in online settings. While digital forums magnify our communicative powers, the ways in which digital platforms distribute power in practice is often unequal and arbitrary:the loudest, most sensational voices get afforded the most attention and influence. Today, the 100th most subscribed YouTube celebrity still has five times as many subscribers as The New York Times. In this fluid environment, where influence no longer tracks prestige, what matters is not the power of the collective, but the right delegation of power amongst the collective. Second, rivalries between groups often play out in spectacular fashion on digital platforms. Compounded by designs that reinforce and amplify preconceived views, online communication can become overwhelmingly disrespectful, adversarial, and strategic.

Hostility between rival groups was a central preoccupation of Madison and the American founders. One of the greatest aims of The Federalist Papers was to imagine institutional designs that could guard against the potential dangers of tribal relations or “mutual animosity” among men. The republicans, who were more wary of “mob rule” than their democratic counterparts, were generally more attentive to the relational dimension of politics. In Federalist No. 10, for example, Madison famously takes up the task of designing a political system that might assuage the worst impulses of group or “factional” behavior. We lack a Madisonian approach to the digital age, one that treats digital media as a relational problem, not just an informational or participatory one.

The elite-public distinction, which once tracked the differences in power of an earlier generation, is increasingly becoming outmoded as a way of tracking power in the digital era. What might it mean, I wonder, for policymakers to think of the Internet not in terms of the familiar language of democracy, accountability, and power, but in terms of what citizens, locked in a new social experiment, might owe to each other, and how institutional designs might help foster it? What might it mean, in other words, for us to treat digital technologies on their own terms?

Chang Che is a writer covering topics on US/East Asian politics, US-China relations, and technology. He is the former Editor of the Oxford Review of Books and the current Executive Editor of the Oxford Political Review,  where he also runs a podcast series (available on Spotify and Apple).

Follow him on Twitter: @Changxche