I have long been obsessed with words and phrases. Some of my favorite comedians (such as Dennis Miller and the late great George Carlin) had an affinity for words that left me envious as a kid, even if I wasn’t allowed to repeat some of their more “choice” selections.
One phrase that has stuck in my mind over the last two decades is creative destruction, a term coined by an obscure German economist that has had remarkable staying power. I have read two books recently have touched on this notion that as technology giveth, technology taketh away. Since I have an extra hour this weekend with daylight savings time, I might as well use it for something productive (I think).
A Better Pencil
The first book is A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution by Dennis Baron. I enjoyed Baron’s look at the history of the writer and the reader, especially when confronted with seismic shifts in technology. I found his research to be quite compelling; I always like reading books that take our current predicaments and contrast them with historical precedents to find similarities. (An amazing book on this is Floyd Norris’ The New York Times Century of Business.) I try to do the same with my own work, but I digress.
Particularly fascinating were comparable reactions between Plato and many people today regarding changes in communication. It turns out that Plato feared that the very act of writing would cause people ignore the subtleties of speech such as inflection and tone of voice. Many people today have the same concern about the demise of newspapers and magazines. With more and more people obtaining their news and entertainment fixes online, are the subsequent losses in quality control and fact-checking causing unforeseen consequences? Are we getting dumber? Lofty questions, to be sure.
Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology also delves into the nature of technological change. Postman’s book is hardly devoted to the written word; his research takes the reader into vastly different realms such as the medical industry, the Manhattan Project, and the psychology of Sigmund Freud. One of Postman’s main points is that blindly embracing technology’s benefits is just as wrong as universally refuting them. Only a Luddite would maintain that technology only makes things worse across the board. Postman forces the reader to ask himself, “Where should society draw the line with technology?” Again, this is another really big question.
So, let’s get back to creative destruction. Technology has long provided opportunities for those willing and able to embrace them–and cause for concern for those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Examples of massive changes caused by technology are way too numerous to list, but consider a few examples:
- Many products have simply died–e.g., typewriters and LPs .
- Products such as CDs are on the brink of death.
- Some face an uncertain future, such as the physical book as we know it.
- Apple computer was an also-ran before digital music and the iPod made it one of the most valuable brands today.
- People who use social media have been able to connect with others in ways simply unimaginable twenty years ago.
So, where does this leave us?
Today, technology is challenging conventional wisdom on many levels. However, this has always been the case. Baron’s and Postman’s books only confirm what is happening today: things are changing. Perhaps the only difference between today and Plato’s time is the pace of that change.
While today’s technologies themselves might be unique, the issues that they are presenting are certainly not. More succinctly, to quote one of my favorite Rush songs, Tom Sawyer, “He knows change is not permanent. But change is.”
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