Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web

redeem or destory   Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The WebThe Internet makes censorship impossible and will bring down corrupt regimes around the world. It will lead to an era of absolute transparency, which will inevitably lead to more equality and more justice. Disagree? Try this, then – the Internet means none of us need to know anything, because we can look anything up in a matter of moments. We’re all becoming stupid because the machines do all of our thinking for us.

Which of these arguments are correct? Time will tell, but if the past is anything to go by neither prediction will ultimately come true. So long as humans have created new things we’ve predicted fantastic and terrible things about them. It’s true of the web, and it’s true of many technologies from our past.

Machine Guns Will Make War Impossible

Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the machine gun, was asked in 1893 whether his creation will make wars more terrible.

No,” he responded. “it will make war impossible.”

   Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web

The First World War – and the advent of trench warfare – would ultimately prove this prediction wrong. It’s a great example of how hard it is to predict how any given technology will be used – even for the person who created it. Maxim sincerely thought his invention would be so effective on the battlefield that no one would bother to fight a war again.

He was wrong. But it’s not the only time a given technology was predicted to end war forever only to become a part of war.

“The invention of aircraft will make war impossible in the future,” British novelist George Gissing said in 1903.

It didn’t, of course – planes only led to a new, airborne kind of war.

Radio Will Bring About World Peace

And it’s not only weapons that were predicted to end wars. Communication technologies were too.

“The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous,” said Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneer of radio, in 1912. One hundred years of warfare between then and now, and it seems anything but ridiculous.

   Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web

But Marconi’s point isn’t ridiculous – any technology that makes it easier to spread ideas makes it easier to sympathize with others. War is less tolerated today than it was one hundred years ago, and part of that is the media.

But the wireless era has clearly not been one without war. Technology can do amazing things; what it can’t do is solve our problems for us. War will end when humans manage to get along, and technology alone will never cause that to happen.

Similar utopian hope today exists about the web – many believe total access to information alone will solve problems. But information alone isn’t enough – people need to act based on it or there is no impact.

Writing Will Make Us All Stupid

You’ve heard the argument before – the Internet is making us stupid. We’re spending more time looking at pictures of cats and less time actually thinking. Social networks are making us self-centered, distracting us and distorting our definition of friend. People don’t read anything with any depth anymore.

Worries like this are by no means unique to our time, however. New technologies have been seen as upending traditional mental faculties for thousands of years. For example – the written word. The act of writing changed the ancient world in a way you could easily compare to the Internet’s affect on ours, and it also was criticized for encouraging bad habits.

Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” a character explains in Plato’s Phaedrus. “They will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources.”

writing stupid   Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web

Sounds familiar, right? A new technology is making us stupid by doing things we previously did with our minds. Writing gave us a new ability, but having this ability caused most people (not all) to rely less on their own memory.

Of course, we only know Plato said this because of the written word – and far fewer people would have read and discussed Carr’s piece if it were only available on the paper pages of The Atlantic. But the point here isn’t to point out ironies. To me the lesson here is that every new technology offers advantages but also comes at a cost.

But these costs are optional. The written word doesn’t mean we can’t use our memories. It only means we need to decide to do so. And the web doesn’t mean we can’t read books or think deeply.

Bad Predictions Are The Norm

Of course, it’s easy to dig up terrible predictions about technology.

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told USA Today in 2007. “None.

See? Easy. And I can keep going.

“The iPhone’s impact on our business will be minimal,” RIM (Blackberry) CEO Jim Balsillie said, also in 2007.

   Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web

You can dig up similarly confident quotes about almost anything, and anyone who pays attention to the news hears predictions like these constantly. Most of them turn out to be wrong, and are forgotten.

So to speculate that the Internet is going to make us all dumb or solve all of our problems is just that: speculation.

When asked in the late 1960’s about the significance of the French Revolution, Chinese President Zhou Enlai famously said it was too soon to say. The exact intention of the quote is disputed, but a message rings true for me: human history is far too complex a thing to distill into broad-sweeping statements, no matter how badly we want to distill it.

So when you hear techno-idealists proclaim that the Internet will bring about a brilliant era of peace and prosperity, question it. When you hear others state that the Internet will destroy our ability to think rationally and will lead to a LOLcat-flavored doomsday, question it.

20 years ago most people didn’t know what The Internet was. Journalists seemed at a loss to accurately describe it.

Now this network of computers is part of all our lives. What will that mean in the future? I don’t know. The Internet is far too young for anyone to accurately say. 20 years from now it might be locked down by governments, or it might stay the free-flowing medium it is today. It might be replaced by an ad-hoc network free from meddling by ISPs, or it might be offered free to everyone by Google (with ads, of course).

The most accurate prediction anyone can make about technology is that most predictions will turn out to be wrong. And that’s okay – we’ll all find out what happens together. I know I’m looking forward to it.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

45 Comments -

Akhil Kumar

Amazing post! Thanks, man!

gpvprasad

I think you forgot the very basic start of industrilaisation effect, please add that also
i.e. printing press

justinpot

I didn’t forget, there’s simply a limit to the number of things you can fit in an article. Do you have any specific predictions in mind you’d like to discuss?

gpvprasad

yes laptop bags vanishes

gpvprasad

One more thing future is 6th sense

Mar Viv

The future is unpredictable, that’s why it’s the future right. But like you said Justin, we will find out together.

justinpot

Looking forward to it.

ReadandShare

No worries… nothing that humans invent will change human nature fundamentally.

justinpot

Personally I feel like coffee comes close. :)

Seriously, though: it’s a good point. Humans are humans.

Chaz

What about when Humans are no longer Humans? ie, Transhumanism/Posthumanism?

dragonmouth

“War is less tolerated today than it was one hundred years ago, and part of that is the media.”
Maybe. The media did a very good job of whipping up a war frenzy after 9/11/2011. Media is a tool of the Those in Power. It does whatever it is told.

“many believe total access to information alone will solve problems”
Only if the access is actually total and unfettered. As pointed out by a couple of MUO articles, Internet does not offer an uncensored access to information. Also there is a big difference between “facts” and “information”. “Facts” are absolute and indisputable, “information” may or may not be factual. Most of the time it is just noise.

justinpot

And anti-war protesters did a great job in the 1970s of using television to build public support for their cause. No medium is deterministic.

And I also don’t think total, unfettered access to information is enough: people need to be persuaded by moral arguments. The web can make doing so easier, but not inevitable.

dragonmouth

“And anti-war protesters did a great job in the 1970s of using television to build public support for their cause.”
Sorry to disappoint you but that just was not the case. The media was on the side of the government for the most part, although there was lot less editing of content than there is today. We did see the 1968 Democratic Convention protest and how the Chicago PD treated the protesters. We did see the Kent State shootings over and over.

“No medium is deterministic. ”
Maybe not but in the right hands it can determine the outcome. see Joseph Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda, or the use of the media by the Communists.

“people need to be persuaded by moral arguments”
Whose morals? Yours? Mine? Al-Qaeda’s? “Moral arguments” are nothing more than slanting information your way, whoever you might be. Besides, people are not swayed by appeals to their better nature, only by appeals to their self-interest.

Garris Rago

Loved that video haha. I think technology is truly so un-predictable that nobody can tell how it will affect the future. I think AR is a big part of this debate.

Malachy

You say in your article “To me the lesson here is that every new technology offers advantages but also comes at a cost.”

An addage that is not new. See the trird law. Apply everywhere. http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/newton3laws.html

justinpot

Never would have made that connection….kind of cool.

Kirby

“War will end when humans manage to get along, and technology alone will never cause that to happen.”

Here’s a quote to support your statement. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The future is called the future because we truly don’t know what will happen. It’s a scary thing to happen though if the internet won’t be free any more.

justinpot

Do what you can to make it free, then. The other thing about the future: we can change it.

Nonsipuo

Justin what you just said is a conundrum. If I can influence the future then I could actually have a good chance at predicting it. I think that the future is not unpredictable it is just too complex for us to predict (too many variables to weigh). I also think that apart from the ‘physical’ variables there are also unconventional ‘links’ (for want of a better word) that can give us glimpses of the future (for example unexplainable deja vu). It happened to me more than once (it feels creepy for someone but it’s ok I guess) so my argumeny would veer towards the theories that time is not linear and that thus there is no future.

Rob Anderson

So, if the internet is going to dumb me down – how come I took time to read and enjoy your article? In the past (no internet) I would not have had this opportunity to have followed a “like” from Facebook to your article and enjoy it with my morning coffee. Thank you

justinpot

I cannot explain that, Rob. I just can’t.

dragonmouth

While the Internet provides us access to a lot of new and previously inaccessible information, allowing us to educated ourselves, it also gave rise to leet-speak and text-speak. Many people, especially those who grew up with Internet, cannot spell to save their lives and have problems in use of homonyms. In that sense the ‘Net is dumbing people down.

Jean Chicoine

Or maybe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new language that will adapt itself to the new technology. It is in its raw form today, but will probably evolve into a language that coalesce with the technology. And personally I don’t think that the Internet is dumbing people down. Dumb people have been, are and will always be around, no matter the technology. I’m more worried about what the powers that be can do to the Internet than what the Internet is doing to people.

Nonsipuo

@Jean Chicoine – If you agree that language is just a set of rules for communicating then I partially agree with you :) What I do not agree with is that language should and does differ according to the instance and medium – writing a text message is not the same as writing a report at work and both are different from writing a dissertation. Unluckily dragonmouth is right in that younger people know how to write only ‘net’ language.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

In a sense, I agree. It make me laugh when I imagine people from those transitional ages criticizing their children for using ‘corrupted language’. Practically the way we would laugh at any people who use Old English outside a theatre now.
Seriously, however, I don’t want the future written in 1337.

Gary Mundy

Who wants to hold hands while we find out together?
No really. Good article. I had never put that all together. Thanks

John

Both predictions are likely to be correct. The removal of censorship which the internet will provide will have both good and bad results. This will allow access to enormous amounts of information, much of which would be more properly classified as “mis-information”. We already see how quickly false rumors and outright lies become “viral” and in their propagation become accepted as factual information. And the more “stupid” society becomes, the less discerning and more gullible we will become. We won’t have to think about concepts because the internet will do our thinking for us.

And society as a whole will become increasing “stupid” as a result of the influence of the internet as well as the already far advanced dumbing down of formal educational systems (as least in the West).

The two will combine into a perfect storm that will become a vicious cycle if we don’t learn how to intervene. I think we are already seeing the early stages of this scenario playing out before our eyes.

Kimchi Reichard

Excellent article. I think about all the changes I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It’s shocking when you think about it. Rotary phones to smart phones, black and white TV to plasma, LCD and LED. Punch card computers to PC’s and laptops. It’s all progress for the most part but what has been lost is the personal interaction and attention given to the younger generations. Parents find it too easy to plop their kid in front of a TV or let them chat on a computer than to socialize them in public. It’s become a society of dependent technophobes. It’s a nice day out, go out and play!

Jaime Buckley

Very good article, though I would change your speculation to “depends”.

When it comes to the internet…I see both sides happening. It depends on the people using it. Personally I blog, do research and contribute to that research, which lives on the internet. I also have people I know who do nothing but look at stupid pictures and quote rubbish that they don’t check first. Done that myself.

However, I love your Zhou Enlai quote. I’m not sure the intent really matters. What matters are the words you take to heart and it’s powerful.

Thank you for sharing this article.

Jaime Buckley

Michael Parido0

Keep in mind that the single greatest difference between the Internet and all of the aforementioned inventions is accessibility. No previous major breakthrough has been so accessible to so many. The net (no pun intended) result is that we have erased words like expert, informed, based on, and peer reviewed from our collective vocabulary. Right now I can post on Facebook that any world-wide known specific dignitary or sports figure was shot and killed in a Tulsa, OK motel at 3:00 p.m. EST today and that misinformation will fly around the world in a matter of seconds. Very few will doubt it, and even fewer will allow doubt to deter them from sending the falsehood on. Donations to his/her family will arrive before the rumor is dispelled. And as we all know, many of the rumors started in this same manner will never be dispelled. Overall I would venture to guess that the WWW has made the global community much dumber. People are quick to believe what they want to believe. In the case of writing or radio, there was more time to unwrap any claim before repeating it. In today’s world, from the largest of media outlets to your next door neighbor, being first trumps confirmation. A sad state of affairs.

dragonmouth

“that misinformation will fly around the world in a matter of seconds”

A Lie can travel halfway around the world while the Truth is still putting on its shoes – Mark Twain

Lisa Santika Onggrid

The case of ‘Older than dirt’, huh? People react to bad news in bigger scale than dealing with good news, unfortunately.

dragonmouth

Misinformation or a lie does not have to bad news.

If by “people react to” you mean “people are more interested in” then you are right. Good news and/or the truth do not sell. People want to be titillated. They are more interested in the salacious, the innuendo, then in the truth. There is an adage in American media (probably in media all over the world) that “If it bleeds, it leads”.

Mizrable

All things are positive or negative according to the person using it. If you’re driven with a vision it’s most likely you’ll use tech positively. Anyone looking to do harm will find a way to enhance the negativity. Tech does replace manual skills. That’s what it’s designed to do by making things more efficient. Unfortunately when the reasoning behind a skill is removed the user is left with only the operation and compensating skills languish. This is what has apparently happened to cashiers at grocery stores with the machine doing all the calculations. If power goes down, sales immediately stop since the skill to improvise was supplanted by operation.For these reasons I favor maintaining manual methods for the first 12 years of schooling so that the mind can learn eye/hand coordination and process of discovery which is fundamental and makes learning to operate tech easier.

Stuart Jones

I hadn’t heard the quote from Plato before, that’s gold. Great article, Thanks!

Keith Swartz

Good, VERY good article. Thanks!

tarzan2001

Great article! Keep up the good work! :)

Rustam Iminov

Einstein who once said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”
Well that is what already started

Stephanie Staker

I just posted on Facebook but I want to say it here too. The internet, like guns, are inanimate items. It was what we DO with them that can cause trouble, hurt, pain, and yes, even death. Death from the internet? Am I getting carried away? No, sadly I am not. Teens (and pre-teens) are bullied to the point that suicide seems the only relief from it. Same is true of predators who pretend to be “for” the teen or even the adult and there have been stories we have all read where these predators do horrible things including murder. So, we must be careful here just like when we park our cars in a dark parking lot, right?

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Yeah. There are a lot of dark alleys in the internet. I’ve heard about suicide site and other related topics. Good thing I stay away from those corners. Like many things, internet is double edged. Say you’re depressed. You can find help…or someone who make it worse.

Rob

I had never heard this Guglielmo Marconi fellow quoted before, but coming from the time he did you can see that his prediction made sense.
Certainly, radio should have helped to promote understanding. It and other communications technologies *have* made war more apparently ridiculous.
It seems that men have a harder core of stupidity than Marconi suspected. They resist reason with great force of will.
Be that as it may, I am weary of the popular ‘postmodern’ talk that one finds plastered all over the internet. If you don’t acknowledge objective truth and that it is possible to attain by degrees in speech, you are lazy, and you belong to war.

Tal

Hilarious!

Lisa Santika Onggrid

This is very interesting. I never knew Plato had said such thing, and it’s truly an irony. I doubt most people would know the name Plato if not for the invention of written words. Also, we would never come this far in technological advance without meticulous records passed down from generations to generations.
As for bad predictions? Quoting someone out there, ‘you’re never prepared!’

Scott MacDonald

Love the young Peter Mansbridge!

justinpot

It’s one of my favorite videos on the web, and the young Mansbridge is a big part of why. Also the use of “Internet” with “the”.