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What Our Ancestors Worried About

Those silly ancestors of ours worried about things — they worried and worried, so pointlessly. That’s what today’s xkcd comic is about. I love xkcd more than I ought to, I suppose, but I found this one annoying — deeply annoying. Because all Randall Munroe thinks he needs to do is to show what our ancestors were concerned about, and that will be sufficient to prove that their concerns were needless, and further proves that any similar concerns today are equally without substance.

Of course, Munroe doesn’t say any of these things explicitly, but he doesn’t have to: most of his readers get the point. For instance, one person I follow on Twitter commented, “Why I think virtually all technology alarmism is ridiculous,” and linked to the xkcd comic.

But here’s the thing: how do we know those people were wrong, those people who between 1871 and 1915 wrote about the increasing speed of life and a consequent impatience with writing? After all, that was a period of significant social change, accelerating industrialization, the rapid spread of the telegraph, the invention of the telephone and the radio. Why do we just assume that their concerns were senseless?

Similarly, it often seems that every cultural critic at some point in his or her career feels obliged to quote the passage from Plato’s Phaedrus in which King Thamus rejects writing because he thinks it will ruin memory — and to quote it as an example of arrant Luddism. But wait: writing did ruin memory, at least in the sense that it enabled people to offload the work of memorizing to text. Of course, most of us think that that was a darn good trade-off, in precisely the same way that we think it’s good to have phones that remember phone numbers so we don’t have to. But it would be ridiculous to say that no trade has been made, as everyone realizes who is asked for a close friend or relative’s phone number only to realize that he doesn’t know it without reading it off his phone.

Moreover, even if people were wrong to fear certain technologies in the past, that says absolutely nothing about whether people who fear certain other technologies today are right or wrong. It’s an irrelevant datum.

Again: I love xkcd, but today’s comic is just giving people an easy excuse not to think about things that need to be thought about. And that’s not good.

By the way, I talked about this on Twitter today and got some interesting responses. You can follow the conversation in Storify form here.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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