ABOUTCal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019).“But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing,” Socrates says to the titular Athenian aristocrat. He then tells the fable of the Egyptian god Theuth delivering the gift of letters to King Thamus. Theuth expects gratitude; instead, Thamus laments that writing will weaken his subject’s memory. “The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions,” the wise king concludes. Here Plato seems to dismiss one of the most fundamentally useful technological innovations in human history.
I know this story because I’ve become an accidental connoisseur of historical Luddism. My new book argues, among other things, that our relationship with our digital devices is broken, and that this is a problem we need to fix. Throughout my publicity tour, one of the more common objections I heard was that my concerns were yet another example of people exhibiting a knee-jerk fear of a technology that we’ll eventually come to accept as harmless. Like Socrates scolding Phaedrus, us modern techno-skeptics might just be behind the times.
Given how often I hear this objection, I took a closer look at our history of encountering new technologies. What I found was far more nuanced than the easy storyline of reactionary fervor.The common narrative of technophobia begins with Plato’s dismissal of writing in 370 BC, and continues through more modern innovations, such as Henry David Thoreau’s suspicion of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” When the automobile first appeared on roads, we’re told, it become common for incensed pedestrians to shout “Get a horse!” But were we really so quick to reject these innovations?
Let’s consider the electric telegraph, the original digital communication network. The idea that people were generally worried about fast messaging is hard to support. As Tom Standage reports in his excellent 1998 history of this technology, The Victorian Internet, optical telegraph systems that used flags and semaphores to transmit messages quickly over long distances had been widely deployed as early as the 18th century, with little concern. While it’s true that one of these early systems, demonstrated in 1792 in Belleville, France, was destroyed by a mob, it wasn’t because they feared the technology but because they believed it was being used to communicate with royalist inmates at the nearby Temple Prison.
In 1842, when Samuel Morse lobbied the United States Congress for funding for his electromagnetic version of the telegraph, he did face skepticism, but it was less about the utility of the invention and more about whether it would actually work. At the time, electricity was not well understood by nonspecialists. It was more associated with parlor acts and sensationalist demonstrations than any sort of useful work. “[They] seemed more like a conjuring trick than a means of communication,” Standage writes of Morse’s initial demonstrations. After Morse got a line up and running between Baltimore to Washington, DC, however, much of this doubt vanished. And once control of the fledgling network was handed over to private interests, the technology spread with shocking speed. “No invention of modern times has extended its influence so rapidly,” Scientific American reported in 1852.
This was not, in other words, an innovation that had to overcome strong opposition once its practical value became clear. There was some pushback, but the examples I came across seem milder and more focused than sweeping claims of telegraph-backlash imply. Many histories, for example, quote an 1868 speech by businessman W. E. Dodge, who feared that merchants were now expected to keep up with much more communication than in the pre-telegraph age. He doesn’t, however, reject the invention, but instead summarizes it as “not an unmixed blessing” for this one specific class of workers—hardly a caustic takedown.