The eternal return of opposition

New technologies have always been met with resistance at first. There’s nothing wrong with that. The opposition creates a dialogue able to reclaim the best and useful parts of the new technology while raising awareness of any potential risks. The problem is when the opposition is motivated by an irrational fear disguised as reasonable apprehension. It all starts with Plato, whose myth of the invention of writing I recounted in a previous post. The Egyptian king’s fear was that writing would damage memory and encourage laziness.

In the 15th-century, the Venetian editor Hieronimo Squarciafico was reluctant to see printing as a liberating and fertile technology. He feared that the availability and accessibility of printed books (as opposed to manuscripts) would damage the book culture in the long term, making people too reliant on books and too little on themselves, while allowing the new technology to neutralise all others.

Centuries before the academic omen of ‘publish or perish’, Squaciafico issued a no less ominous warning: ‘Be printed or perish’.

The warnings issued by many people today against digital technologies are driven by similar concerns. In our society’s passage from an oral to a chirographic (handwriting), typographical, electronic and now digital culture, warnings have been issued at all transitional nodes. The irony is that each time the objections are raised through the technology which was meant to be denounced. Plato wrote about the risks of writing, Squaciafico printed his word of warning against Gutenberg’s machine in large cast-iron letters, while many detractors of digital communication and social media binarize their premonitions, click after click.

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