I like historian Robert Darnton’s idea that there have been four great Information Ages in human history, times when the ways people communicated with one another changed so irrevocably there was no going back. In each of these eras, people worried about distraction.
- In the ancient world,some very thoughtful people (such as Socrates) worried about the new technology of writing and alphabetic transcription. Although the first writing, so far as we know, went back to scratches in clay tablets in around 4000 BCE Mesopotamia, the Classical Era was ushered in largely because of the development of the Greek alphabet, including diacritical marks. For Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC), the worrisome Information Age against which he rebelled was prompted by the invention of writing and the Greek alphabetic system of transcription that reached its apotheosis around 400 BC, over the course of Socrates’ lifetime. He was sure writing things down diminished the mind, distracted us with an excess of information, weakened the power of memory and recall as necessitated by the oral tradition, and over-simplified the complexity, flow, and development of ideas that happens in dialogue, his preferred form of communication.
- When Gutenberg developed movable type, some feared the authority, accuracy, and significance of the God-ordained and supported Scriptorium would be lost because suddenly books had become reproducible mechanically in that great Information Age. The handwritten illuminated texts by professional Scribes were aesthetic marvels and also marvels of clerical and legal selection and control, with central authorities of Church and State determining what would and would not be recorded. Wouldn’t movable type diminish the mind and dilute the power of social elites, causing dissension, havoc, disrespect for powerful educated thinking, and social alienation? Wouldn’t society more generally become diminished by too many cheap and fast because reproducible words?
- During the Industrial Revolution, steam-powered presses and machine-made ink and paper made books widely available to middle- and working-class people for the first time in history, and suddenly the pundits were expressing all manner of fears of what this Information overload would do to humanity: the fears included memory loss, distraction, loss of an ability to focus productively, licentiousness, violence, diminished appreciation for great literature or complex philosophy, and asocial behavior (to name just a few). Novels were the video game of the 18th century in its popularity and the vilification heaped upon the genre. When I was researching the first generation of mass readers, scouring the attics of historical societies for marks in books too paltry even to be catalogued, I found dresses and pants into which young people had sewn a hidden pocket in the seam, just big enough to conceal a duodecimo (the format of cheap, mass produced novels). In diaries, young people wrote about these, who taught them how to sew them, and what they were hiding therein. Concurrently, policy makers pushed for compulsory schooling (a way to control thoughts suddenly made unruly by the bombardment of too much print.
- And then there is our own Information Age, which some would harken back to that famous day in April of 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was made available to the public. The worry over multitasking, distraction, memory loss, lack of depth, inability to concentrate, and all the rest that our pundits present us with today, in this Information Age, comes in a long, fine tradition. For every Information Revolution, there is nostalgia for the unruffled, focused, mindful past in the face of the turgid, confusing, avalanche of information in the ever-tasking present. Isn’t technology destroying us? Isn’t it governing us? Isn’t the quest for ever more speed, ever more tasks, ever more information (what’s the litany from Socrates forward?) making us shallow, distracted, unproductive, asocial, dumber? Isn’t this the dumbest generation? And isn’t Google to blame?
So think about this history of past Information Ages the next time you hear a pundit blame the Internet for distraction, multitasking, diluted memory, asocial behavior, shallowness, loneliness, isolation, intellectual dilution and so forth. It may be the World Wide Web, or something else. Socrates would have urged us to blame our distraction on the alphabet. . .