FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Blame Technology, Continued

Following up on my post from a couple of weeks back citing the tendency to blame technology for much of society's ills, some more examples have recently come to light. An article in the Japan Times (in English) accuses the rise of mobile phones and the Internet in that country of causing a near-meltdown of the economy. Because Japanese citizens are so preoccupied with their technology, the article argues, movie attendance, TV viewing and book sales are on the decline. It even suggests that the phone industry is undermining Japan's high-profit heavy industries such as auto manufacturing. The article concludes with a rather typical assessment of how mobile phones are rotting the minds of Japan's youth:

"Many young people addicted to cell-phone communications buy few books or even comics. They waste hours each day in text-message communications and Internet games with little time left over for other forms of enjoyment. The cell phone is the cause of the business slowdown as well as the erosion in young people's intelligence and scholastic abilities."

Sound familiar?

Nearly half a world away, the British have their own technology critics. The Techdirt blog cites studies from a children's charity called NCH alleging that the Internet is to blame for child pornography and a rise in underage gambling. Although there is, sadly, truth in this, saying the Internet or other technology is the sole cause is overly simplistic. The role of the Net in child pornography is well understood... especially by law enforcement, which has made great strides recently in busting online pedophile rings.

As we've discussed, people blame technology for complex problems because it's easy to do. The Romans had a phrase for it 2,000 years ago: Damnant quod non intellegunt (They condemn what they do not understand). When people feel they do not understand how something works, they're automatically suspicious of it, maybe even afraid of it, and they are easily swayed by arguments against it. Plus, technology in Western culture enjoys a high profile: lots of people know about high tech, even if they remain ignorant about it. The truth is that, unless we all decide to become Amish, technology is inevitable. Like the weather, technological changes comeon their own schedule, so we need to prepare for them, learn about them in a rational way, and make the most of them.

I am sure that the issues in Japan's youth culture run much deeper than mobile phone usage. And as for child porn and underage gambling, these were around long before cyberspace. One of the most important roles a futurist can fill is to understand problems and unintended consequences of technological and social change. The issues these writers cite are indeed real. But these writers also illustrate the fine line between responsible caution and hysteria. Simply blaming the Net and mobile phones is not the solution, and does us all a disservice.