Technology is freedom

New technology is always greeted with suspicion, but always enhances our lives

Dateline 12 November 2005

As the late author of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, has pointed out, technology comes in three types.

First, there is technology that already existed when you were born. This is natural and normal, and not really to be regarded as technology at all.

Second, there is technology invented in the first thirty years of your life. This is wacky and exciting and, with any luck, you can make a career out of it.

Third, there is technology invented after your thirtieth birthday. This is dangerous, against the natural order of things, and probably evil. It signifies moral decline, and the end of civilization as we know it.

This is not really a modern trend. A little over a century ago people worried what would happen if electricity leaked from the outlets over night. Sixty years ago people worried about television. Could the people at the other end see us? George Orwell’s 1984 – in which people at the other end could see us – was modeled on the real fears of 1948, the year in which he wrote it. Many people were reluctant to undress in any room containing a TV.

And, even when those fears passed, TV was still guilty of moral depravity – the cause of violence and childhood obesity. Today, of course, TV has been forgiven. Everyone knows that it does not cause these things – the Internet does.

Of course, the Internet does absorb time that children might otherwise have used for playing sports. So does reading books. It is a source of information which parents might prefer withheld for a few more years. So is the local library. Like the library, it is also a source of unparalleled educational opportunities. It is far larger than the Library of Congress and much more interactive. It allows children to participate in their own learning.

Responsible parents set boundaries, but they fear technology because in this area they lack confidence. When the child understands the technology better than the parent or teacher, how can adults set boundaries? It is not as difficult as you would imagine. The principles are exactly the same as they always were. The problem is that the mainstream media – who, as Dan Rather learnt, have their own reasons to fear the Internet – still report Internet related matters as though talking about something dangerous.

Again, it was Douglas Adams who pointed out that if a crime is planned on the Internet this is somehow thought worthy of comment in the media. For decades, nobody has thought it worth commenting that a crime was planned on the telephone! Or at a coffee bar! Though these innovations were also controversial in their day.

The advice columnist of the London Times recently had to deal with a mother worried that her daughter, aged 11, was curious about sex and discussing it with a friend. Girls of 11 have done this since the beginning of time. But this mother was worried because her daughter was using cell phone text messages. Why should that matter? The fact that the boy she was talking to was several hundred miles away should, if anything, have been reassuring to the mother.

Technology is freedom. It is the reason we are not all permanently engaged in a struggle for food and shelter with no time for anything else. Let’s have more of it.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 12 November 2005

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