I wanted to title this “The Future Is All Right And You Might Just Be Old,” but that was a bit long.
Yesterday The New York Times added to their growing catalog of technology- and youth-bashing essays, a catalog which ought to be called something like “Be Wary The Scary Future!” This installment, “The Perils Of Perfection,” by Evgeny Morozov, warns of the dangers of building and using technology to solve our problems, particularly in ways that separate us from a more innate, natural state. I don’t disagree with the article’s core statement, which is an easy one:
Whenever technology companies complain that our broken world must be fixed, our initial impulse should be to ask: how do we know our world is broken in exactly the same way that Silicon Valley claims it is? What if the engineers are wrong and frustration, inconsistency, forgetting, perhaps even partisanship, are the very features that allow us to morph into the complex social actors that we are?
Asking humans to be a little less arrogant and a bit more thoughtful is never a bad thing. The problem with the piece, and with so much of the Times’ Opinions on society and technology, is how it approaches the subject from fundamental pessimism. They leave themselves on the wrong side of history. They are, in a word, old.
They could also be called conservatives, or traditionalists — those with a desire to keep things the same. This is an important impulse, one that ought to serve us well. It ensures we remember what has worked in the past, the hard-won lessons of all those who came before us. But too often it holds us back. We see this in the Morozov’s cynicism:
Such predisposition makes it harder to notice that not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at “hackathons” or viral videos to belatedly shame Ugandan warlords into submission….Shockingly, saving the world usually involves using Silicon Valley’s own services.
Is that a reason not to try? Why discourage people from, of all things, trying to solve problems just because their solutions might not work?
The tradition of the elder, the conservative, the old person screaming into break is a long one. I have the impulse, looking at how people younger than me behave on the internet. It feels existential. My way of doing things is better, smarter, truer. I’m right about how to live. It’s ego — idealizing our own works and minimizing how good the future might be. It’s fear of death — death isn’t so bad if the world’s going to hell. But ultimately, claiming “the way we did” is better than “the way we will do” is largely a value judgment, and a guess.
Yet this judgment is dangerous wherever it refuses to let something new and good flourish. The thing about the old, those who are vested in the status quo, is that they inevitably have the power today. A reasonable hurdle to change is a good thing – if it weren’t for a certain type of traditionalism by my mother when I was five, I might still be eating candy for breakfast. But when a powerful institution discourages us from simply trying some stuff that has never been done before, we have a problem. There is a reason conservatism is often associated with the wrong side of history.
A companion to today’s article might be Sherry Turkle’s “The Flight From Conversation,” published in the Times last spring. This one is about how, in the age of social media, we are always communicating but never really conversing. The piece is full of anecdotes of young people texting during dinner, using Blackberries in meetings, and wearing headphones at their desks — interspersed with nostalgic waxing about “real conversation” and un-Instagramed walks on the beach. Turkle’s material comes from talking to “hundreds of people” as a researcher. It doesn’t take too astute a between-lines-reader to imagine her approaches generally getting the answers she was looking for. The traditionalist, conservative, old-person bias slips into plain sight in the essay’s wind-up lines:
We used to think, “I have a feeling; I want to make a call.” Now our impulse is, “I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.”
With your generation it was a “want,” but now it’s a “need”…?
These writers, claiming they want to preserve the human spirit, don’t give it nearly enough credit. The self-aggrandizing aspects of conservative/traditionalist thinking leave them blind to its stifling and contradictory nature. You want to convince us to be less arrogant in our ability to solve problems by arrogantly presuming consequences that haven’t occurred? You want us to mourn a rose-tinted, ‘real conversation’-filled past without recognizing all those who were stifled back then, and who now have the ability to connect across the globe and be less alone?
Technology, Silicon Valley, youth, for all their respective foibles, really are the best we have, the way art and music are, and politics, finance, or marketing plainly are not. In them we have the possibility for a world that is truly better. It will be built on the past, and its makers will need our advice. We won’t live to see most of it. But we cannot forget that we are making the future every day. We have a responsibility to nurture, not stifle. The arc of history is long but it’s bending in the right direction. So for all those who worry, the fact of the matter is this: the future is all right. You might just be old.