A recent Wall Street Journal book review began with the story of Johannes Trithemius, a German abbot and advisor to Emperor Maximilian I, who was concerned that Gutenberg’s printing press would have near-apocalyptic consequences, that the mass production of texts would shake the societal structures of the time. And it did, but looking back on it, there aren’t many who would argue that we’re worse off today because of it.
The book in review was “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” by Michael Harris.
Instead of embracing and celebrating the positive changes the Internet and connectivity have to offer, it seems he lives in fear that future generations will miss out on many of the important moments that allowed him to flourish. Harris believes we are living in our own “Gutenberg moment,” but what he may find is that while we are going through a transition possibly as monumental as the printing press, he’s playing the role of a modern-day Johannes Trithemius.
This is a never-ending cycle. I think we’re hardwired to be concerned about technologies of the time, while looking back on the technologies we grew up with fondly, and for good reason, because they helped us get to where we are today. In the future there will be plenty of people reminiscing about simpler times, when keeping in touch with friends was as simple as Facebook and Twitter and finding information required you to type it into a search engine.
In 1858, almost 400 years after Johannes Trithemius penned his concerns, The New York Times concluded that there could be “no rational doubt that the telegraph has caused vast injury,” claiming it was “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.” Similar concerns followed the telephone, radio, and television. The Internet, and the technology we have to stay connected, is just the newest, and won’t be the last.
(The Atlantic wrote a fantastically-researched article, which is where I first came across this clip. If it interests you, The New York Times entire archives from 1851-present – over 13 million articles – can be accessed here.)
There is no doubt that the Internet can be used to numb the mind, but there have always been devices to serve that purpose. To me, it’s never as much about the mediums and channels we use to communicate, but the people behind them. As humans, I don’t think we’ve fundamentally changed much since 1492, but with every new wave of technology, the fear of that happening resurfaces.