Witold Rybczynski on Our Ambivalence Towards Technology

One of my favorite authors, Witold Rybczynski — I’ve been reading him since I was a young teenager, and I’m currently reading his latest, Makeshift Metropolis — offers thoughts on how we think about technological progress:

[W]e assume that technological change will inevitably be accompanied by loss, and we tend to romanticize past machines such as clipper ships, old handicrafts, even old towns. But the rosy image is rosy. The tall ships were inhuman work environments, dangerous and physically debilitating; old crafts often involved mind-numbing labor, and the beautiful objects that we admire in museums were available only to a wealthy few; and the old towns that we visit while on holiday lacked the technological amenities—running water, flush toilets, central heating—that we take for granted today. I think we can blame a good deal of this romanticizing tendency on the movies, which have portrayed history in highly selective ways. In truth, Robin Hood and his Merry Men endured lice and continual tooth-aches; the noble cowboy loners portrayed by Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd were illiterate, crude louts; the Edwardian swells portrayed on Masterpiece Theater suffered from gout, rheumatism (damp, drafty houses), and venereal disease.

Later, he adds the following:

Another cause of our ambivalence towards technology is that we assume that machines cause technological change. The personal computer—or vapor ware—create a new world, we say. It is instructive to examine an earlier communications device: the printing press. The press famously appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century, although neither movable type nor paper-making were European inventions, but originated much earlier in Japan and China. What facilitated printing in Europe was advances in metallurgy and water-power; metallurgy, because it was needed for the spread of typesetting (the early types were made by goldsmiths), and water-power, because it permitted the manufacture of cheap paper. Cheap paper, replacing parchment made from calfskin or goatskin, was a prerequisite for printing. But the prime driver was a cultural change: a growing demand for books, that is, a growing desire to read and write. In other words, the human activity came first, the machine followed. So today, digital media are not creating a new world, they are enabling a new world that already exists.

This reminds me of anxieties concerning the digital divide. Increasing broadband penetration may well be valuable, but if it is used to expand access to MMOGs to the less affluent, it is not clear that the spread of digital technologies will prove empowering.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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