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RFE/RL's Luke Allnutt In 'San Francisco Chronicle'

In an op-ed for the "San Francisco Chronicle," Luke Allnutt, editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website, writes that fear about -- and ultimately acceptance of -- advancements in technology is a phenomenon that has been consistent throughout human history. Allnutt argues that modern society's concern with the spread of digital media and social networking is no different than previous generations' apprehension about the invention of the printing press or the telephone.

Fear of the new is an affliction that's quite old

Luke Allnutt | San Francisco Chronicle

May 9, 2010

Apple has sold its 1 millionth iPad, and, for some, that might well spell the end. The iPad, critics say, will kill books, movies and the art of conversation. Our lives will become merely pixilated versions of reality. Our children will turn into digital zombies with the attention span of goldfish.

Along with all this fretting, we will romanticize about life before digital. We will talk about the joys of listening to LPs through tinny speakers and eulogize about the feel of crisp pages on our inky fingertips. Such laments, however, are nothing new. In fact, throughout history, our feelings about technological change - the fears, the moral panic, the split between starry-eyed technophiles and wistfully romantic technophobes - have remained remarkably consistent.

It all started with Plato, who objected to the pencil. The written word, he said, would lead us to losing our memories. Unlike conversation, written words were not interactive; words were mere shadows of things. In his 2009 book, "A Better Pencil," Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics, charts a history of techno-pessimism. The printing press, he writes, was originally "faulted for disrupting the natural, almost spiritual connection between the writer and the page." Centuries later, the typewriter - now held up as emblematic of the artistry of writing - was seen as a dangerous machine that would destroy the writer's relationship to the words.

The telephone was not immune from widespread fears. "There were health concerns," Baron said in an interview. People thought that "it would ruin the hearing, that the electric current could kill you."

And just like the panic we hear today about the dangers of social networking, "there was also a notion that the telephone erased class boundaries, and many people found this scary. That people could gain access to your home that you wouldn't open your door to, and this was threatening the social order."

Novels, too, once were seen much like today's Internet: a conduit for filth that cheapened the noble art of writing. And why would you want to watch a film, people asked at the dawn of the 20th century, when you could see something with your own eyes?

Why do we do this? Writing in "Reason" magazine in 1996, the economic historian Joel Mokyr argued that it is felt that "new technology dehumanizes, turns people into slaves of their own technology, and is responsible for assorted social ills, from crime to loneliness."

But most of it is simply generational. Vaughan Bell, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, has argued that "the older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the 'wholesome' media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced."

We tie ourselves in intellectual knots arguing why books are superior to e-books and why LPs are better than MP3s, but beneath the verbiage lies an uncomfortable truth: We are just grumpy old folk complaining that they don't make them like they used to.

In fact, deep down, we are not really mourning the technology at all but rather the passing of our youthful pleasures: the Rolling Stones gatefold we rushed out to buy, the grubby tobacco-stained paperback we carried around France. The mistake we make is that by focusing on the medium (the books, the records), we tend to forget the importance of the message. For all the talk of loss, we forget what is paramount: the words and the music. As a teenager, it wasn't the CD liner notes I loved or even my parents' old LPs but Lou Reed's voice, the raw longing of "Coney Island Baby."

I do not remember how my copy of Michelle Magorian's "Goodnight Mister Tom" smelled when I was a boy, or how the illustration on the front cover looked (its physical manifestation is long lost to a garage sale), but I remember how markedly the solitude of Willie's pain affected me. We romanticize about the accoutrements -- the seduction of a book-cluttered apartment, the heft of the weekend papers, the magical mystery of previous ownership held within a book's dusty pages -- as if they mattered more than the writing itself.

In doing so, aren't we somehow forgetting and diminishing the genius of Dickens? And are we really so presumptuous as to imagine that paper and print have a monopoly on the senses, or that our children won't be able to strike up the same emotional attachment to music just because it comes in a different format? Well, yes we are, and in that we are no different than generations past.

While the future of technology is wide open, one thing is sure: In 50 years, our children will write their own elegies as they are confronted with the specter of technological innovation. They will harken back to the good old days of e-books and MySpace and see a cleaner, uncomplicated time, a time of honesty and genuine romance. They will wax lyric, whimsically, about the tactile feel of an e-book, its sleek whiteness snuggled in their laps. Our children will remember learning to read on iPads. They will remember how the digital bees joyously buzzed around the screen as they spelled out a correct word.

And, just like now, their children will look at them with bewilderment as they talk about a digital golden age that, like all golden ages, never really existed.