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Socrates would probably have hated Facebook

If, like me, you sometimes wonder if the time you spend on the Internet is stealthily wreaking havoc with your brain, you’ll be relieved to read the latest article in Slate by Vaughan Bell, the British neuropsychologist and intrepid blogger (Mind Hacks), on how media technology scares have always been with us.

“Worries about information overload are as old as information itself,” he writes, “with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain.”

Here are some of his historical (and, you could say, hysterical) examples of media scares that proved to be groundless:

  • Socrates,” writes Bell, “famously warned against writing because it would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.’ He also advised that children can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not ‘improper’ tales, lest their development go astray.”
  • After compiling an index of every book available to him and other 16th-century (!) readers, Swiss scientist Konrad Gessner “described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both ‘confusing and harmful’ to the mind,’” writes Bell.
  • The rise of newspapers in the 18th century raised the ire of the French statesman Malesherbes, who argued, says Bell, that the medium “socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit.”
  • By the 19th century, some French physicians were arguing against universal schooling, which, they said, could “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protected imprisonment.” In fact, says Bell, some physicians thought too much studying led to insanity!
  • In 1936, writes Bell, Gramaphone magazine “reported that children had ‘developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker’ and described how the radio programs were disturbing the balance of their excitable minds.”
  • Later, as media historian Ellen Wartella has noted, people opposed to the new medium of television “voiced concerns about how [it] might hurt radio, conversation, reading, and the patterns of family living and result in the further vulgarization of American culture.”

Hmmm…. Maybe they had a point there.

‘Harming moral values’?

As Bell notes, we’re now, of course, getting similar warnings about the Internet and new media: “E-mail ‘hurts IQ more than pot’” (CNN), “Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values” and “Facebook and MySpace generation ‘cannot form relationships’” (Telegraph), “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer” (Daily Mail).

“Not a single shred of evidence underlies these stories,” writes Bell, “but they make headlines across the world because they echo our recurrent fears about new technology.

“This is not to say all media technologies are harmless,” he adds, “and there is an important debate to be had about how new developments affect our bodies and minds. But history has shown that we rarely consider these effects in anything except the most superficial terms because our suspicions get the better of us.”

As Bell also notes, we’d all do well to remember the 2001 observation of the late, great Douglas Adams (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“):

“There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 02/19/2010 - 11:13 am.

    Interesting post as always. Hearing dire predictions about social media has made me wonder what people were saying/writing/preaching when the telephone first became popular. Perhaps that it would destroy relationships? Subvert parental authority? Lead to a false sense of intimacy? Rot the brain? It would be fun to find out.

  2. Submitted by Ellen Mrja on 02/24/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    Your comments reminded me of a quote I once heard was attributable to a U.S. Patent officer: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in 1899.

    Great quote but,unfortunately, an urban legend. Here’s the real story from

    I do bemoan the fact that my attention span seems to have gotten shorter now that I work so much online. I think it might be because

    Oh, look! A plane!

    Nice blog post, Susan.

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