When I had young children, I wished to be married to a pediatrician — now I wish for a computer professional. When my grandchildren visit, they set me up with blogs and other ostensibly helpful services. The problem is what I learn today, I tend to forget tomorrow. They return home, and I am left alone and befuddled. Of course, I can always call someone to help, but I will be charged by the hour.
I am not one of those who is upset that the children are all on their cellphones and no one is talking to a real person. I am not raising my voice in protest about the lack of face-to-face communication. I am not throwing my hands up in despair that the grandchildren are texting while talking to me. I once asked one of them what he was texting, and he said he was telling his friend that he was talking to his grandmother.
And so let us look at how changes in communication have been received throughout history.
Although the invention of the alphabet has been popularly attributed to the Phoenicians, recent excavations have uncovered earlier writings using only about 30 symbols, suggesting the Egyptians may have invented script about a thousand years earlier. But it was in the fifth century BCE that the Phoenicians introduced the alphabet to the Greeks.
Plato criticized this spread of written language as an impediment to wisdom. He said that writing is only a semblance of truth and that people will seem to know something when, in fact, they will know nothing. He complained that writing things down would eliminate the need for memory. He said Socrates, too, had decried the written word, and had said that one can ask questions of or argue with a speaker, but the written word may not be understood and may be interpreted falsely — a precursor of today’s complaints about the lack of face-to-face communication.
In the mid-15th century, the next communication revolution occ-urred with the advent of Gutenberg’s movable-type press, and it, too, was criticized for allowing the dissemination of misinformation. The church, in particular, was losing control of what people could know and think about as the printing of secular books became more affordable. A Benedictine monk, a professional scribe, warned, “They shamelessly print … material, which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths …” The Reformation ignited by Martin Luther in 1517 was made possible by the popularization of scholarship. The dissemination of standardized information accelerated advancements in technology and science. (Think of today’s ease of global information and the possibility of movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.)
In the 1800s, the next communication revolution was taking place — the advent of the telephone. There were privacy fears, that people would listen to the phone conversations and would lose the face-to-face communication. Complaints abounded about unwanted calls, and the annoyance of interruptions plagued even its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who refused to have a phone installed in his workroom. The phone was thought of as so intrusive that in 1890 Mark Twain wrote a Christmas card wishing all people rest and peace, except for the inventor of the telephone. Today, we also complain about interruptions in the form of spam emails and text messages.
And so it is, that writing and reading, the Gutenberg press and the telephone have all led us to where we are today — the internet. We are living in the midst of another communication revolution. And what do we hear? Not only the same complaints, but in the same words. Fear of the written word as opposed to the spoken one, fear of the invasion of privacy, fear of the rapid dissemination of ideas, fear of the loss of control over potentially oppositional social and political movements — these are all fears voiced over the centuries and again today.
Change fosters discomfort until we adapt and move on. So in the meantime, let us accept our texting children, tweeting grandchildren, our wireless phones vibrating in our pockets and celebrate our continuous need for invention, our endless creativity for what we call progress: the relentless pursuit of more, faster, better, which defines our civilization.