The illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be

December 24, 2007

Some time ago Nick Carr, who for me writes one of the most intelligent technology blogs, made an offer to apply for a free advance reading copy of his new book The Big Switch. I am not sure what the criterial for success was but I am pleased to say that I made the cut. I skimmed it quickly when it arrived and intend to settle in to read it in more detail over the holiday period so take it for granted that I recommend it.

I thought I would start what will be a series of blogs with his final paragraph:

All technological change is generational change. The full power and consequence of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins. As the older generations die, they take with them their knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains. It’s in this way that progress covers its tracks, perpetually refreshing the illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be.

Now aside from the fact that this is really well written (I am envious) it contains considerable wisdom. I have yet to make my mind up if the final sentence is pessimistic or merely cautionary. The controversy in the blogosphere over Lessing’s outburst on receipt of her long over die Noble Prize illustrates some of these concerns. Are we breeding a generation where knowledge of, and love of books is lost in the fragmented happenstance of the net? Of course those books in their turn almost destroyed the oral tradition of the story tellers; progress at a price. At the same time, I and others are arguing that properly understood the internet allows me to resurrect that oral tradition, but in a wider more global way. In a sense through interactions and multi-threaded communication we create a pattern of meaning through story which is comparable with that of the shamans and story tellers of so called more primitive societies. Writing with hotlinks represents considerable progress over the more staid form of the formal article, while the mass audit of peer review is if anything more rigorous that that of an editorial panel.

I think one difference with this technology is that it is more natural, its fragmented nature matches the fragmented nature of our intelligence and memory structures, but critically it also allows us to augment our memories through the storage capacity, but also the networked social interaction of the net. In a sense it is less intrusive than the technologies which preceded it which changed the physical structure of our lives. We may well forget some aspects of the industrial, energy based economy of our, and our parents generation, but the knowledge economy seems to be allowing us to rediscover more ancient forms of wisdom.

One thing is clear however, we (by which I mean those of us in the baby boomer generation who created this technology) have a responsibility to manage its transitions. The experiences children have still have a fundamental influence on the patterns through which they see the world in later life. Yes we need to allow them to fully participate in this new technology, but that is not incompatible with a love of books. Geek dinners are as popular as on line linkages. My children (despite being 19 and 16) will still insist on playing a board game or two over Christmas. My son was arguing with me today about the need to reread books. He disagrees with my habit of buying all the books in a series before reading the first, arguing that I missing the pleasure of re-reading the early ones. He also spends much of his time in a virtual environment, and is happy in both. He also by the way disagrees with me over the start and end of The Golden Compass!

Balance and memory have to go with progress and we need to start to challenge the assumption that whatever is the most popular is necessarily right, or for that matter sustainable.

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